As the North Carolina State Board of Elections prepared to investigate allegedly illicit donations to members of the North Carolina General Assembly and Governor Pat McCrory, McCrory replaced all five members of the board. However, some officials on the state board do not believe the replacement was part of an attempt to suppress the investigation.
“There are areas that really do need to be examined and the staff has already started an investigation,” said Bob Hall, the executive director of Democracy NC, the organization that brought the complaint about the governor to the board. “If the new board does try to halt things, I think people will get very upset.”
Jason Husser, assistant professor of political science at Elon University, added that while the board members control the direction of investigations, work still gets done regardless of who is on the board.
“A lot of times, these investigations are handled, really, by staff members who are permanent staff,” Husser said. “Here, I don’t know the specific role of the staff, but often times they have staff members who are really the ones running things.”
Democracy NC asked the state board to investigate Chase Burns, the owner of International Internet Technologies LLC, a sweepstakes gambling company. Burns was arrested and charged with racketeering and conspiracy.
Burns was the largest donor to the N.C. General Assembly in the 2012 election, donating $235,500 in total to all candidates in the state. According to Husser, in smaller, local elections, large donations can have a larger influence in politics because less is known about the candidates.
“It’s easier to learn about Mitt Romney or Barack Obama,” Husser said. “It’s a lot harder to learn about ‘candidate x’ running for the state representative seat.”
In the state legislature, the top recipients were Senate leader Phil Berger and House speaker Thom Tillis, who received $8,000 and $6,500 from Burns respectively. Burns’ other donations in the General Assembly went to both Democratic and Republican members.
“What we see with the sweepstakes thing is fairly consistent with corporate donations, which is, corporations are trying to not so much buy influence as buy an audience,” Husser said. “They hedge their bets by donating across parties.”
Burns and his wife each donated $4,000 to Gov. McCrory and made other donations to candidates who were reportedly connected to members of the law firm Moore & Van Allen, which Gov. McCrory worked for in 2012 and Burns hired to lobby for International Internet Technologies LLC.
“We’ve filed complains against the Democratic party and against the Republican party,” Hall said.
Hall has issued around a dozen complaints to the state board of elections over the past 15 years, including a complaint that led to an investigation of former House speaker Jim Black, who received illegal donations from video poker companies and was eventually arrested.
“The industries that are on the markets that want to be players or want protection get their cues from the bigger players that they need to put in money in order to be a player,” Hall said. “And the video poker and sweepstakes industry have the additional feature that so much of their business is in cash and they are quite familiar with just throwing cash around.”
Board chair Larry Leake, who has been a part of the state board of elections for multiple terms, was accused by state board staff members of holding up an investigation into Gov. Bev Perdue’s acceptance of more than 40 private campaign flights from donors. But Hall said that the issue was more complicated than people realized.
“The problem was that, for the Republicans on the board, there was information that was not provided to them at the time and they needed to make a decision and information came up later on that went to the district attorney,” Hall said.
Looking back on the state board, Hall ultimately thinks they served their purpose well.
“It was a Democratic board and they convicted several Democrats of wrong-doing,” Hall said. “I think they did a very good job overall.”
Link to the story on the Pendulum website: http://www.elonpendulum.com/2013/05/board-of-elections-undergoes-changeover-before-investigation-of-illicit-donations/