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Elections probe needed of sweepstakes donors

A majority of members of the North Carolina Board of Elections said this week they support a campaign finance probe of 2012 political donations from operators of video sweepstakes games. We hope that majority stands after Tuesday, when the current four-year terms of board members expire. Gov. Pat McCrory named new members Friday; three Republicans and two Democrats will replace the three Democrats and two Republicans.

There is good reason to suspect wrongdoing, and the board of elections needs to get to the bottom of it. The video gaming industry has given more than $520,000 in political donations to N.C. lawmakers since 2010 in hopes of reversing a ban on the sweepstakes games that was upheld by the N.C. Supreme Court last December. The watchdog group Democracy North Carolina filed a complaint on Monday about $235,000 in checks last year to more than 60 N.C. campaigns by an Oklahoma sweepstakes software provider who was indicted in Florida as part of a $300 million illegal gambling operation.

Court filings show Chase Burns’ company earned $98 million from N.C. Internet cafes with such video games. According to the Associated Press, some of the money went into the checking account of a trust controlled by Burns that was used to send checks to the campaigns of Republican leaders that included McCrory, state Senate president pro tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis, and many other elected officials from both parties.

The AP also reported that most the $235,000 in checks from Burns were delivered to candidates by Moore & Van Allen, the Charlotte law and lobbying firm where McCrory worked until just days before he was sworn into office in January.

Moore & Van Allen no longer represent Burns, and many of the N.C. officials who received money have donated or plan to donate it to charity. McCrory and Berger have also noted that they oppose video sweepstakes games.

But two lawmakers who got donations are not opposed to the games. In fact, they are sponsoring legislation this session to legalize and tax sweepstakes games. Republican Rep. Jeff Collins and Deputy Democratic Leader Michael Wray received a combined $6,000 from Burns and other sweepstakes donors.

But it’s the attempt to buy legislation that’s wrong – not simply whether manipulators achieve their goal.

N.C. law forbids corporate money from flowing directly or indirectly to fund political campaigns. Democracy North Carolina says disclosure forms suggest Burns’ donations might have included company funds. If campaign contributions by sweepstakes donors were made or delivered in violation of state law, those involved should face the consequences of their actions. The elections board can impose fines and make a referral to state prosecutors for criminal charges.

Former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black protected the video poker industry while accepting campaign contributions from its operators when he was in office. He went to prison for it in 2007.

The state legislature has passed three laws intended to ban video poker and electronic sweepstakes games, most recently in 2010. But sweepstakes operators or supporters are undaunted and keep trying to get back into the game. They should not be allowed to violate state law to do so.

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