After three decades in North Carolina politics, Republican Robin Hayes had become his party’s elder statesman.
He served 10 years in Congress. Was a GOP leader in the legislature. Ran for governor. And twice stepped in to unite a fractured party as its chairman.
But Hayes just became the state’s latest high-profile politician to be caught up in a corruption scandal.
In a plea agreement, Hayes admitted lying to the FBI in its investigation into what prosecutors call a $2 million bribery scheme.
The man who once spoke to packed party conventions and on the floor of the U.S. House responded with only muffled, two-word replies to questions from a federal judge Wednesday.
“Are you in fact guilty?” Magistrate Judge David Cayer asked.
“Yes sir,” replied Hayes.
He was one of four men indicted last March on multiple charges of conspiracy and bribery. Also indicted were Durham businessman Greg Lindberg and two associates, John Gray and John Palermo. All four pleaded not guilty at the time.
A trial for the remaining three defendants is scheduled for Nov. 18, although attorneys for two defendants are trying to delay it until February.
For Hayes, 74, pleading guilty to a felony not only ended a long political career but could cost him his right to vote. As he left the court house Wednesday, he declined to speak to reporters but waved through a car window and simply said, ‘Thank you.”
“He clearly was an important actor in this quarter-century of Republican ascendancy,” said Andrew Taylor, a political scientist at N.C. State University. “Now his career is over with this kind of whimper and apology.”
Helping the community
By the time he entered state politics at 47, Hayes already was a wealthy businessman and a fixture in his hometown of Concord.
He’s the grandson of Charles Cannon, the founder of the old Cannon Mills, once the world’s largest producer of towels and sheets. Hayes himself ran several businesses, including a hosiery mill.
Like the rest of his family, he was an active philanthropist and still serves on the boards of family foundations that support education, health care and other community initiatives.
“I’ll always remember him as a citizen of Cabarrus County and for everything he’s done for the people here,” said John Lewis, a Concord attorney. “He came from a family of extraordinary means and he is humble and down-to-earth. The notion of a common man, that’s Mr. Hayes.”
Connie Wilson met Hayes when both ran for the state House in 1992.
“Robin has a heart that is driven to help people and the political arena was a place that he felt led to enter so that he could maximize his skills and knowledge... to help people,” said Wilson, a former GOP lawmaker who now lobbies in Raleigh.
The outreach continued.
When Hayes chaired the state party, he met Apostle Wiggins, pastor of a non-denominational urban church. Hayes financially supported a ministry that Wiggins said provides meals for up to 300 people a week. He sometimes let Wiggins use party headquarters for Sunday worship.
“Robin is a very caring compassionate man,” Wiggins said. “I remember him saying if you help the community, you help the country.”
‘Actions have consequences’
The burly Hayes is genial and unassuming. That’s why his reaction to a speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention surprised a pair of delegates who’d flown to Cleveland as guests aboard his private Pilatus jet.
The two were supporters of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, whose convention speech was derided by supporters of Donald Trump. When Hicks told Hayes he thought it was a fine speech, Hayes offered a quick reply.
“I think you need to ride the bus home,” Hayes told him, sending the two scrambling for rides.
“Actions have consequences,” Hayes later told a reporter.
‘Pull us out of a hole’
Hayes first chaired the state party in 2011, when he was elected over tea party activists to fill a vacancy. He chaired the party a year later when Republicans gained control of all three branches of government for the first time since Reconstruction.
In 2016 the party faced a bitter split.
Grassroots activists backed Hasan Harnett, the first African American to lead the party. But more established leaders cited a litany of offenses including fundraising failures. Hayes and six other former chairs took the unprecedented step of urging party officials to oust Harnett.
That’s when Joyce Cotton ran into Hayes at a party function and told him the party needed somebody who “can pull us out of a hole.” Party officials ended up dumping Harnett in an extraordinary impeachment vote and named Hayes to replace him.
“He had pulled us out one time before and he was popular with the party and an excellent fundraiser,” said Cotton, then chair of Republicans in the 2nd Congressional District. “The party was broke when he took the reins.”
Headed to a downfall
Hayes stepped down this summer a few months after his indictment in what prosecutors described as a scheme to funnel $2 million to Republican Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey’s re-election campaign.
They allege that Lindberg wanted Causey to dump a senior deputy commissioner who oversaw regulation of one of Lindberg’s companies. Some of the money was to go through the state Republican Party. Prosecutors paint Hayes as a willing participant in the scheme.
One Republican who knows Hayes well said the chairman believed he was merely trying to intercede with a party office holder on behalf of a donor. Others also give him the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t think that he went into any of these activities at his age and with his years of service with malicious intent,” said Phillip Stephens, chairman of the Robeson County GOP.
Mac McCorkle, who directs the Center for Political Leadership at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said Hayes’ downfall may speak to “staying too long in the battle.”
Taylor, the N.C. State political scientist, called it “an ignominious end to a career that spans basically the entire period of Republican hegemony in North Carolina politics.”
But Lewis, the Concord attorney who served as counsel for the state party, called it “a very unfortunate set of circumstances.
“I think folks need to step a back,” Lewis said, “and remember all the good things he’s done.”