Backsliding, toothless enforcement are making a mockery of North Carolina’s campaign finance laws

Published February 15, 2024

By Rob Schofield

There was a time in North Carolina, not that many years ago, when the state’s political establishment – elected leaders, judges, regulators, lobbyists, reporters, reform advocates – were hugely and rightfully obsessed with the laws governing campaign finance and political influence peddling.

In the early 2000s, spurred on by the energetic muckraking of a nationally acclaimed government watchdog named Bob Hall and, in particular, his courageous investigations of Democratic state House Speaker Jim Black, campaign finance laws and lobbying laws (and the corruption they were designed to police) frequently dominated lawmaking in the Legislative Building and the state’s political news headlines.

Indeed, under the honest and able leadership of Black’s successor as Speaker, Chapel Hill Democrat Joe Hackney, Black’s fall and ultimate conviction and imprisonment on federal corruption charges soon gave rise to the enactment of new and far-reaching statues designed to tackle and rein in the “pay-to-play” politics that moneyed interests had used so widely and effectively to buy influence in state government.

One law – the so-called “no cup of coffee” rule – attempted to eradicate the longstanding practice of lobbyists wining and dining lawmakers after hours at local establishments when the legislature was in session. Others sought to crack down on the practice of inviting lawmakers to attend all-expense-paid confabs at plush locales, where they might sit on a panel for a few minutes and then spend the rest of a weekend soaking up food, drink and entertainment. Still others targeted the inherently corrupt practice of lawmakers holding Raleigh fundraising events during the legislative session in venues barely a stone’s throw from the General Assembly. And for a time, legislative ethics committees actually held regular public meetings and took allegations against lawmakers with some degree of seriousness.

Unfortunately, over the last decade-plus, the commitment to combating corruption in Raleigh has dramatically waned. Thanks to a combination of factors, sleaziness and rule-skirting have made a big comeback in the capital: the ability of many regulated individuals and groups seem to creatively interpret and evade the reach of  laws and regulations, as well as the systematic under-funding of public overseers like the State Board of Elections.

See for example, the world of campaign finance. While Bob Hall retired from his longtime leadership of the nonprofit advocacy group Democracy North Carolina a few years’ back, he’s still a numbers whiz with laptop, and a nonpareil understanding of the laws and how to access the reports that politicians are still obligated to submit.

Time and again in recent years, he’s written publicly and persuasively (and filed damning official complaints) about the highly questionable and/or embarrassingly shady actions of powerful politicians of both parties – only to see his pleas disappear into bureaucratic black holes.

As he detailed in a January column for Newsline, for instance, there is the case of Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s 2020 campaign and its readily evident, but still unexplained, violations of campaign finance laws – violations that Hall described as “Illegal cash donations; contributions in illegal amounts and from illegal donors; illegal cash withdrawals; illegal credit card charges and illegal expenses; illegal disclosure of financial transactions.” Hall filed a complaint with the elections board in 2021. The response thus far: crickets.

And then there is the longstanding saga of Sen. Phil Berger’s Raleigh real estate deals and landlord-tenant machinations. As Hall explained in another column for Newsline last week, Berger has used creative interpretations of the law in this area to convert as much as $300,000 of campaign contributions to personal wealth – a sum Hall describes as the most of any North Carolina politician in recent memory.

House Speaker Tim Moore has made use of a not terribly dissimilar tactic. Again, here’s Hall:

“Moore has also pocketed more than $70,000 from his donors over the past four years by charging his campaign a monthly fee for using his law office, which is a renovated small house he owns in Kings Mountain.”

Hall rightfully notes that such law and rule-bending is not just a Republican problem. In his column last week, he highlighted the chronic campaign finance reporting failures of Democratic House lawmaker Cecil Brockman who, he notes, will at some point soon, have filed “six late reports in a row, the worst record of any legislator.”

In a world in which such matters were taken seriously (like the post-Jim Black Raleigh of 2008), evidence of such misdeeds, self-dealing and negligence in high places would likely have produced a public uproar, ethics investigations, the enactment of new laws and rules and maybe even some criminal investigations.

Unfortunately, in today’s North Carolina – a state in which a serial liar who faces multiple criminal charges is the most popular politician in the Republican Party — such questionable acts are dismissed by many as small potatoes and conveniently shuffled to the bottom of the inbox by state investigators acutely aware of who it is that controls their budgets.

One can only hope that Hall and others like him will keep raising heck until the public finally wakes up and demands action.