Morganton attorney Julia Leigh “Juleigh” Sitton, a fundraiser for Gov. Bev Perdue’s 2008 campaign committee and the former director of Perdue’s western North Carolina office, pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge in a criminal probe of campaign finance violations involving Perdue donors and campaign officials.

Sitton will pay a $5,000 fine and serve a year of probation. She also is prohibited from participating in political activities during the term of her probation. At the beginning of Friday’s hearing, she dropped motions made to the N.C. Court of Appeals challenging several issues she had with the original charges.

Had Sitton gone to trial and been convicted of a felony, she faced the possibility of a jail sentence and the loss of her law license.

Sitton is the second official with the 2008 Perdue campaign to plead guilty to violations associated with campaign finance activities. Greensboro businessman Peter Reichard, the finance director of the 2008 Perdue campaign, took a felony plea in December 2011, accepting a $25,000 fine and two years’ probation.

Sitton was charged with felony obstruction of justice and causing the Perdue campaign committee to file false campaign reports. Her indictments state that for 16 months, during 2007 and 2008, she worked full time for the Perdue committee, but received $2,000 of her $5,000 monthly pay from a source outside the campaign committee. A bogus consulting contract was drawn up to provide cover for the arrangement.

“No consulting was provided. The defendant worked full time for the campaign,” Willoughby said Friday in court. “These [payments] were not disclosed in campaign reports.”

Charles Michael Fulenwider, a Morganton businessman, funneled the undisclosed pay totaling $32,000 through Tryon Capital Ventures LLC, a firm run by Reichard. Sitton was an attorney in private practice before working for the Perdue committee. Fulenwider already had contributed the legal maximum to Perdue’s campaign. In 2009 Perdue named Sitton director of the Western Governor’s Office in Asheville. Sitton resigned from that position in August 2011.

Reichard was charged with obstruction of justice for soliciting and accepting the $32,000 from Fulenwider to pay salary to Sitton that went unreported.

Two other Perdue associates — Robert Lee Caldwell of Morganton and Trawick “Buzzy” Stubbs of New Bern — have been charged with crimes associated with campaign finance violations. Their trials have not been scheduled.

Fulenwider not charged

Fulenwider has not been charged, but he was involved in activity dealing with falsely reported campaign flights. When a Wake County grand jury indicted Robert Lee Caldwell of Morganton Feb. 8, 2011 for obstruction of justice for his involvement in a Dec. 8, 2007 campaign flight for Perdue, it mentioned that “cash from an unnamed source” was used to pay for the flight. Caldwell has not appeared in court.

According to that indictment, Caldwell solicited a $3,048.50 check from Morganton barber James D. Fleming to pay for the flight, and then reimbursed him with cash from the “unnamed source.” Fleming’s check was used to hide the actual source of the funds, the indictment states. 

The unnamed source, which the indictment made clear was someone other than Caldwell, has not been identified, but Fulenwider chartered the aircraft. Fulenwider and his wife Joella were aboard the airplane with Perdue and her husband, Bob Eaves. Also aboard was Raleigh attorney Robert Zaytoun, co-chairman of Perdue’s 2008 campaign.

The story so far

The investigation of Perdue’s campaign resulted from reporting by Carolina Journal and The News & Observer on former Gov. Mike Easley’s unreported use of private aircraft for his political campaigns. After news stories were published, Perdue’s campaign committee quietly began revising her 2004 and 2008 campaign finance reports in 2009. Her campaign eventually disclosed and paid for 42 unreported flights valued at $56,000. Perdue and others associated with her campaign claimed that not reporting the flights was unintentional.

Then-state Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer didn’t accept that explanation. He claimed the unreported flights were a deliberate attempt to violate campaign finance reporting laws. In October 2009, he called on the State Board of Elections to launch an investigation. After a lengthy investigation by board staff, the board discussed the staff report at an August 2010 meeting.

The board’s three-member Democratic majority rejected a proposal from a Republican member to convene public hearings on Perdue’s flying activities, so it never questioned dozens of aircraft providers about their role in the free flights. 

The board fined the Perdue campaign $30,000 and found “no intent of wrongdoing.” Immediately after the board hearing, Willoughby said he was going to review the case. Willoughby asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into Perdue’s unreported flights because he thought the elections board might not have addressed the issues fully.

That probe also led to the discovery of the scheme involving Sitton, Reichard, and Fulenwider.

For CJ‘s entire series of reports on the Perdue fundraising controversy, click here.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal. Executive Editor Don Carrington provided additional reporting for this story.