Politics & Government

Hearing Wednesday to weigh possible wrongdoing in NC senator’s campaign

Senator Fletcher L. Hartsell, Jr.
Senator Fletcher L. Hartsell, Jr.

The state Board of Elections is set to conduct a hearing Wednesday afternoon that is aimed at deciding if prosecutors should probe the campaign spending of longtime Republican state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell.

Hartsell may not show up.

Hartsell was invited to attend the hearing, said board spokesman Josh Lawson, but the senator was not issued a subpoena that requires him to appear. Compelling him to speak would mean that Hartsell, under state law, would receive immunity from prosecution based on what he says about the case, Lawson said.

The board has held similar hearings in the past decade that resulted in testimony from political figures.

“Many folks have chosen to speak upon their own volition to ensure their side is adequately represented,” Lawson said. “He’s welcome to do that.”

The state board has previously subpoenaed Hartsell’s records from six financial institutions.

Hartsell’s lawyer, Roger Knight of Raleigh, said this week no decision had been made about Hartsell’s attendance at the hearing.

“We have no idea how this thing will go,” Knight said.

Who is Fletcher Hartsell?

Hartsell is a Republican senator from Concord, in Cabarrus County, north of Charlotte. His district also includes a piece of nearby Union County.

He’s been in the Senate since 1991. He frequently ranked as the most effective Republican senator when the chamber was run by Democrats. In 2009, he was the 7th most effective senator, according to survey results compiled by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. He ranked 12th in 2013.

Hartsell is co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary I Committee and co-chairman of the Senate’s Program Evaluation Committee. He is a vice chairman of the Senate’s Finance Committee and is the Republican caucus secretary.

He is a lawyer with a practice in Concord.

What’s this about?

Hartsell filed campaign finance reports in 2013 that indicated he had spent nearly $100,000 of his campaign’s money in 2011 and 2012 paying off debts on at least 10 personal credit cards. State law requires full disclosure of campaign receipts and spending, and bars lawmakers from using campaign funds for personal expenses.

After the News & Observer reported on the spending, the Board of Elections launched a probe. Elections officials assigned an auditor in early 2013 to investigate and determine if any laws were broken. Hartsell has since given the board more information and has talked to the board’s staff.

All the information is part of an investigative report that board chairman Josh Howard said totals more than 700 pages. It is not a public document.

What law is at issue?

The state board says the hearing is to determine whether the board has “knowledge of or reason to believe” that Hartsell’s campaign violated campaign finance laws.

The section of law the board is focused on deals with campaign contributions and expenditures. Hartsell has been his campaign’s treasurer.

What happens now?

Board hearings are not as structured as typical court hearings.

Howard said how the hearing proceeds will depend a lot on whether Hartsell or Knight decide to answer board members’ questions or respond to assertions contained in the investigative report.

Board of Elections executive director Kim Westbrook Strach and other investigators will likely be called on to answer questions, he said.

This is the first time the current board, with members appointed by Gov. Pat McCrory, has conducted a hearing that could lead to a possible criminal referral.

What would happen next?

The Board could refer the case to prosecutors, which would then take up the matter for further review.

The Board could also decide not to refer the case.

What’s the history on these types of hearings?

High-profile state politicians, including former Gov. Mike Easley and former House Speaker Jim Black, both Democrats, were the subject of Board of Elections hearings in the 2000s.

The last similar hearing concerning a politician’s campaign reports was a former Board of Elections decision in 2010 to fine Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s campaign $30,000 for its failure to report as donations 42 campaign flights on private aircraft during her 2008 run for the office.

If you go

The hearing is open to the public. It is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. and will be at Campbell University Law School, 225 Hillsborough St., Raleigh, room 314.

Bonner: 919-829-4821;

Twitter: @Lynn_Bonner