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Sweepstakes hearing needed

By Ned Barnett
The (Raleigh) News & Observer

In April 2013, Democracy North Carolina, a group that advocates fairness and transparency in elections, filed a complaint with the N.C. Board of Elections about possibly illegal contributions from the video sweepstakes industry to state candidates. Members of both parties received the funds, including the state’s three top Republican leaders: Gov. Pat McCrory, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Despite the looming probe, McCrory moved just weeks after the complaint to replace all five members of the State Board of Elections. The new board immediately removed longtime executive director Gary Bartlett, who had Democratic ties, and replaced him with Kim Strach, a well-regarded board investigator.

The timing of the changeover was awkward, but there were assurances that the new board and executive director would pursue the video sweepstakes investigation without political favor. There was precedence for that. Staff under the Democrat-dominated board conducted investigations into prominent Democrats that resulted in convictions of former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps and former Gov. Mike Easley.

Josh Howard, a Wake County Republican selected as chairman of the board, was asked last spring whether he might assure all voters, Republican and Democrat, that the board would act impartially in enforcing campaign finance laws. Howard, a former deputy criminal chief for economic crime for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, told WRAL, “Watch our record as we move forward.”

We have. And 14 months later, we aren’t seeing much. The staff is investigating, but the board hasn’t taken up the matter. The latest development is the hiring of former FBI agent Chuck Stuber as the board’s chief investigator. He will review the investigation’s findings and advise Strach and the board how to proceed. No one knows how long Stuber’s review will extend an investigation that has dragged on to a point where it is straining the board’s credibility.

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker has decided to look into the matter and has requested the help of the State Bureau of Investigation, according to Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Josh Lawson, a Board of Elections spokesman, noted that the board’s investigation of Black was also a long process. He said the board’s staff has interviewed more than 100 people in the sweepstakes case, but has not asked for help from the U.S. Attorney or the Wake County district attorney.

Strach said in a statement, “In every case, we devote the time and effort necessary to fully investigate alleged violations. We believe that is what the citizens of our state deserve and expect.”

The governor, Berger and Tillis have not been named as subjects of the investigation, but they have benefited from the board’s long silence. Tillis, who is the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate, perhaps benefits the most by not having his name mentioned in a probe or having to appear at board hearings on the matter. McCrory also gains by an extended investigation that has left the campiagn contributions unexamined in a public forum.

At issue are contributions from Chase Burns, a video sweepstakes software provider who lives in Anadarko, Okla. The video gaming industry has been pushing for approval in North Carolina since the state moved to ban the games a few years ago. The Associated Press has reported that the checking account Burns and his wife used in 2012 to make $235,000 in donations to dozens of North Carolina campaigns contained proceeds of a criminal gambling enterprise in other states.

In September, Burns pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts of assisting in the operation of a lottery. After Burns was charged, the campaigns of McCrory, Tillis and Berger gave to charity any donations tied to Burns.

It’s not publicly known what Burns thought he could get in North Carolina and whether his contributions were properly given and properly received. That’s why the State Board of Elections should have held hearings by now. Its delay contrasts sharply with the behavior of the Democratic-led board, which moved quickly to hold hearings when complaints were filed and referred its findings to prosecutors when appropriate.

Larry Leake, an Asheville attorney and Democrat who served on the Board of Elections for 20 years and 16 as chairman until last spring, said he doesn’t know enough about the investigation to say whether it has gone on too long. But as a general rule, he said, his board gave staff a clear time frame to conduct an investigation and then the board stepped in to apply its subpoena power and ability to compel testimony or grant immunity.

“If you think there’s smoke, then you have to have a hearing,” he said.

Ned Barnett is editorial page editor of the (Raleigh) News & Observer. Email: nbarnett@newsobserver.com.
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