Editorial: Clear conflict at N.C. Board of Elections

The Observer editorial board

The sweepstakes industry, and Chase Burns in particular, gave a lot of money to N.C. politicians in the 2012 election cycle.
The sweepstakes industry, and Chase Burns in particular, gave a lot of money to N.C. politicians in the 2012 election cycle. AP

You’d have to be naïve to believe that an appointment to a state board isn’t a political perk that for some people goes beyond pure altruistic public service. Even so, any time a board member is not held to the highest ethical standards, the public’s trust in government takes another hit.

That’s why Paul Foley should resign from the North Carolina Board of Elections.

Few things are as fundamental to good governance as the integrity of elections. It is the Board of Elections’ mission to ensure that integrity. Foley’s recent actions sully the board’s reputation and jeopardize public trust in its work as long as he remains.

Here’s what happened:

Gov. Pat McCrory appointed Foley to the Board of Elections in May 2013. For the next 17 months, Foley helped oversee an investigation into campaign donations made by Internet sweepstakes businessman Chase Burns and his associates. The problem? Burns and his company had paid $1.27 million for legal services to Foley’s law firm – Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton in Winston-Salem – in the period that was being investigated by the board.

During those 17 months, Foley expressed strong interest in the Burns case, frequently asking Board of Elections staff members about its status and making clear that he thought it should be finished as quickly as possible.

As a partner and one who worked closely on other cases with the lawyers who represented Burns, Foley knew or should have known about Burns’ payments to his firm. But he did not mention the conflict to McCrory, the governor’s office says, nor to anyone at the Board of Elections. It came to light only when elections staff members who were investigating Burns stumbled upon it.

Once that was uncovered, Foley said he would recuse himself from the case. But less than two weeks later, he peppered Executive Director Kim Strach and other staff members with questions about the case. He also told them he wanted to see the staff’s report on the investigation before it became public, so he could advise his law firm ahead of time about anything said about it in the report.

Strach told him that would be inappropriate. Foley insisted. “Mr. Foley was not satisfied with my answer,” she said in a memo to board Chair Josh Howard.

“I am alarmed by Mr. Foley’s behavior today,” she told Howard.

The Associated Press reported in spring 2013 that Burns and his wife had given $235,000 to N.C. elected officials, including McCrory and House and Senate leaders. It was part of a lobbying effort to legalize online sweepstakes. The advocacy group Democracy North Carolina filed a complaint alleging illegal contributions.

The Board of Elections launched an investigation, and Strach is expected to present its findings on Wednesday.

In a report requested by board chair Howard, senior deputy attorney general Alexander Peters found last month that Foley’s actions didn’t taint the Board of Elections’ investigation. If so, that is a testament to the professionalism of Strach and her staff.

Foley was involved with the probe for 17 months without revealing a clear conflict of interest, then pressed on even after the need for his recusal became obvious. He is a detriment to the board, and his presence tarnishes its reputation.

There are plenty of qualified candidates who can serve North Carolina with integrity. McCrory should ask Foley to step down.