Politics & Government

Ex-NC GOP Chair Robin Hayes to plead guilty to lying to FBI in bribery case

Former North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes faces up to six months in prison after agreeing to plead guilty to lying to the FBI in a sweeping federal bribery case.

Hayes, a former member of Congress, is scheduled to formally enter his guilty plea Wednesday in federal court, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Hayes, 74, is one of four men indicted last spring on multiple charges of conspiracy and bribery. Also indicted were Durham businessman Greg Lindberg — one of the Republican Party’s biggest campaign contributors — and two associates, John Gray and John Palermo. All four pleaded not guilty at the time.

Lindberg owns Durham-based Eli Global, LLC, an investment company, as well as Global Bankers Insurance Group, which manages several insurance and reinsurance companies. Gray is a Lindberg consultant and Palermo is a vice president of Eli Global.

They are accused of attempting to bribe state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey with $2 million in campaign contributions to get him to remove the department official responsible for regulating one of Lindberg’s companies.

According to his agreement with prosecutors, Hayes will plead guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI.

In a court document, he acknowledged that in August 2018 he “falsely stated to federal agents . . . that he had never spoken” with Causey “about personnel or personnel problems at the . . . Department of Insurance or about Greg Lindberg or John Gray.”

Prosecutors said while the maximum sentence for the offense is five years, Hayes could be sentenced to up to six months, or serve no time at all under sentencing guidelines. The plea deal says prosecutors “recommend a sentence at the low end of the . . . range.”

Hayes could not be reached. His attorney, Kearns Davis, would not comment.

Hayes’ plea deal comes as Lindberg seeks to have the charges against him dismissed. This week federal prosecutors asked a court to reject his request. It’s unclear when a decision on either motion would be made.

A trial is scheduled for Nov. 19.

Hayes’ plea deal could increase the chance that he could testify against the other defendants.

‘I’ll get ‘er done’

The indictment describes a conspiracy to get Causey to dump a senior insurance regulator in exchange for campaign contributions.

Lindberg has been a major political contributor. Records show that he’s given $5.5 million to candidates, political parties and PACs since 2016. Though he’s donated to both parties, most contributions have gone to Republicans and their allies.

According to the indictment, Hayes had several conversations with Lindberg, Causey and others about Lindberg’s plan in 2017 and 2018. The indictment says Lindberg and other defendants tried to “anonymously funnel the campaign contributions” to Causey.

As part of that, it said, Hayes agreed to transfer $250,000 that Lindberg had given the state GOP to Causey’s campaign. It describes Hayes as somewhat reluctant to transfer that much at one time.

“Yeah, well, you know, again, my concern, any large amount like that’s gonna draw attention, nothing wrong with it, but they’ll see it and somebody will start asking questions, and particularly, given the fact that he doesn’t have to run again until what. . . 2020 . .. so put a lot of money at one time in there right now, then, they gonna [say] ‘well, why . . . you don’t have a campaign now.’

“Whatever you want to do, we’ll do. . . I’ll get ‘er done.”

The indictment goes on to say that FBI agents interviewed Hayes on Aug. 28, 2018, and asked if he knew where the Lindberg contributions were ultimately going. He said he didn’t.

Money fuels campaigns

Hayes, the grandson of the founder of the old Cannon Mills, is a former football coach with a long record in North Carolina politics.

A native of Concord, he served in the state House and ran for governor in 1996. He was elected to Congress from the 8th District in 1998 and served a decade before losing to Democrat Larry Kissell. He twice chaired the state Republican Party until stepping down this summer.

Current GOP Chair Michael Whatley would not comment on Hayes’ plea deal.

Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, who lost to Hayes in a 1996 GOP primary for governor, said he has nothing but compassion for him. “My basic reaction is sorrow for someone I now count as a friend,” Vinroot said Friday.

The case punctuates one of North Carolina’s biggest political scandals. It also highlights a system fueled by more and larger campaign contributions.

“When you’re talking about the amounts of money that are in modern campaigns there is always the likelihood of issues like this playing out,” said Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist. “And even with campaign finance regulations, the money is going to find its way in the system.”

Jane Pinsky, executive director of the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, said the case underscores the need for change, such as reporting contributions in real time, not weeks or months later.

“My theory is if you have a long list of phone calls to return and you know one of them is from someone who gave you the max (donation), that’s the one you’re going to call first,” she said. “That’s the person you’re going to listen to.”

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College. To subscribe to The Observer, go to: www.charlotteobserver.com/jim.