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A closer look at the DOT contributions

 Following up news stories about the political influence of appointees to the NC Board of Transportation, here are few facts and observations from Democracy North Carolina, the election watchdog organization based in Durham:

  • Campaign reports reveal how the Board acts like an ATM machine for the governor and other state politicians.  Looking at the DOT secretary and the 19 Board members on January 15, 2008 (before Thomas Betts’ resignation), Democracy North Carolina found that these individuals and their immediate families donated more than $1 million in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties from 1999 through 2006.  (Because of incomplete disclosure reports, it is impossible to tell how much money the members raised for candidates.)
  • The $1 million-plus amounts to $50,000 in campaign contributions from each of the 20 families represented on the Board of Transportation.

  • The top recipient of all this money is Gov. Michael Easley, whose campaign committee received $320,000 from these donors for his 2000 and 2004 elections.

  • Other major recipients during this period (1999-2006) include State Senate President Pro Temp Marc Basnight ($113,300), Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue ($94,400), Attorney General Roy Cooper ($67,700), and Treasurer Richard Moore ($38,150).  Donations continue to flow at a rapid pace, as new reports for 2007 activity demonstrate.

  • The Board of Transportation is the closest thing to feudalism we have in NC:  Big pots of money are essentially sent to the king (governor or governor-to-be) and the appointee-lords get enormous authority over their respective territories.
  • A report by Democracy North Carolina when Easley named his first Board of Transportation in 2001 found that of his 14 original appointments to the 14 district seats, 9 of them (64%) were related to the families who ranked as the first, second or third top donor-families in each of those districts to Easley’s 2000 campaign. See http://www.democracy-nc.org/moneyresearch/2008/BOTsumm.pdf
  • Many Board members have distinguished records of public service, but the close connection between political donations and appointments creates an appearance of favoritism and taints their good works in the eyes of a suspicious public.  

  • As recommended a decade ago during the last scandal, we need transportation reforms that reduce the power of Board members over DOT policy/projects AND we need campaign finance reforms that reduce the power of major donors in political campaigns.  Disclosure and bans won’t do the job.  For example, the proposal to bar large donors and fundraisers from serving as Board members has little chance of success without a corresponding carrot – i.e., an incentive for candidates to not depend so heavily on big donors because they have a public financing alternative. 
  • A few other reports about the Board of Transportation scandals in the late 1990s are available by looking at the October and November 1997 reports on the list of reports at: http://www.democracy-nc.org/Research.shtml

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