How did a North Carolina legislator commit at least seven years of campaign finance reporting fraud, yet plead to just one crime that resulted in zero days in jail? We asked, and the answer is troubling.
Earlier this month, former Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore pleaded guilty to one felony count of making false statements under oath. Moore, who was indicted in March on nine felony counts involving false campaign finance reports, received a suspended sentence as part of a plea agreement with the Mecklenburg District Attorney’s office. That agreement included no fine or community service.
If you raised an eyebrow at Moore’s slap on the wrist, as this editorial board did, you are far from alone. Officials at the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which audited and investigated Moore’s campaign for two years, were surprised and upset at the verdict, sources close to the investigation told the editorial board. “Mr. Moore’s punishment is not in line with the punishments of other elected officials who have committed similar campaign finance-related crimes,” state elections board spokesman Patrick Gannon said. That includes former Republican Sen. Fletcher Hartsell of Cabarrus County, who was sentenced in 2016 to eight months in prison on federal charges for using $200,000 of campaign money for personal use.
Moore’s case also involved a significant amount of money. Last fall, the state board of elections unanimously found that Moore failed to disclose $140,000 of contributions and expenditures for at least seven years, including $24,676 he withdrew in cash from ATMs. Moore also spent money on movie tickets, dry cleaning and $3,152 of clothing. Even worse, when investigators starting asking questions, Moore and his campaign manager Tammy Neal collaborated to forge bank statements that were given to investigators. The money trail and forged statements were part of a damning presentation then-executive director Kim Strach gave to the board in October, and in March, Moore was indicted on nine felony counts of involving filing false campaign reports.
Each of those counts, however, was a Class I felony. Under N.C. law, first-time offenders can receive no jail time for Class I felonies, even if there are multiple counts. As for accusations that Moore used campaign money for personal use, which could result in jail time?Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather told the Observer this week that those charges couldn’t be proved and that his office consulted with Strach and former board of elections investigator John Bruce before entering the plea agreement.
Elections board spokesman Gannon, however, says no one currently or formerly on the state elections board was consulted on the plea agreement, and sources close to the investigation told the editorial board they believe the DA’s office could have pursued the strong evidence that Moore used campaign funds for personal use. At the least, they say, the DA’s plea agreement with Moore should have included multiple felony charges rather than just one, and that N.C. lawmakers should consider stiffer penalties for campaign finance felonies.
We agree. Otherwise, public officials are sent the message that there’s not very much risk to campaign finance fraud, and the public is left with the impression that Moore actually did little wrong. Moore certainly doesn’t sound like someone who violated the public’s trust. In a Facebook post after the plea agreement, he talked about running for president of the African-American Caucus of the N.C. Democratic Party.