Courts & the Law, News

Government watchdog complaint: Did a state senator and a Superior Court judge break campaign finance laws?

Sen. Brent Jackson, R-Duplin, Johnston, Sampson

A new complaint filed Friday with North Carolina election officials questions whether a powerful Republican state senator and a state Superior Court judge have violated campaign finance laws and judicial conduct rules.

Bob Hall, a longtime government watchdog and former head of Democracy North Carolina, called on the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to conduct a “comprehensive audit and investigation” of Sen. Brent Jackson, a four-term state senator representing Duplin, Johnston and Sampson counties.

Hall’s complaint points to now-amended campaign finance reports that originally listed state Superior Court Judge Beecher Gray as donating thousands to Jackson’s campaign. If the contributions were made by Gray, they might be a violation of the State Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits a sitting judge from making contributions to most individuals seeking political office.

As Hall’s statement notes, reports showed thousands of dollars in contributions from Gray after his appointment by former Gov. Pat McCrory in January 2014, with donations to Jackson and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger in 2014 and 2015.

However, Jackson’s contributions were amended in spring 2016 on state reports, following their unearthing in February 2016 on a blog run by Greg Flynn, another campaign finance watchdog from Wake County.

After the revisions, most of Gray’s questionable contributions appeared on state reports as donations made by the judge’s wife, Sue. Still, one contribution of $1,000 to Berger in October 2014 still lists as being made by Gray, roughly nine months after he was appointed by McCrory.

Gray was an active donor prior to his appointment, records show, including contributions to McCrory.

Many of the contributions to Jackson also came as members of the Senate budget committee, which was co-chaired by Jackson, considered – and eventually approved – a boost in longevity pay for four state judges, including Gray.

As WRAL reported last year, Gray benefited the most because it allowed the Durham attorney to count his two decades-plus as an administrative law judge in his longevity bonus. The proposal allowed Gray to pick up a 24 percent bonus, earning an additional $31,000 in annual pay.

Hall said state officials should review the original checks to determine whether Gray or his wife made the contributions, adding that – if the cash indeed came from Gray – it may be a violation of campaign finance law prohibiting donors from making contributions in someone else’s name.

“It is important for the public to definitively know whether or not Judge Gray made contributions after his appointment as Superior Court judge and whether or not he or Sen. Jackson or others were involved in improperly changing the donor of a contribution,” Hall wrote.

Reached Friday, Gray declined comment on Hall’s claims, and Jackson had not responded to Policy Watch inquiries by this publishing.

Hall’s complaint is multifaceted though, also questioning whether the senator may have incorrectly reported dozens of donors as farmers, when many are, in fact, influential business owners in construction, pharmaceuticals, energy, healthcare and other industries with a stake in state contracts.

Jackson, a farmer himself, is one of the state’s leading agriculture proponents in the state legislature and a chief budget writer in the state Senate.

Bob Hall

Hall delved into a lengthy list of donations from purported “farmers,” identifying more than 80 that he said may have been incorrectly reported to the state.

Hall highlighted several, including Robert Barnhill Jr., a Tarboro executive with Barnhill Contracting Company, a builder with contracts in the Department of Transportation; John McCauley, CEO of Highland Paving in Fayetteville, also a DOT contractor; Charles Fuller of The Results Company, a group that helps to advocate for favorable government policies for their clients; and Greg Jennings of Durham, the owner of an engineering consulting firm who contracts with a Winston-Salem nonprofit that won a controversial budget provision this year from state lawmakers funding a beach nourishment study.

“By misidentifying donors with major interests in state contracts and the state budget, Sen. Jackson and his campaign deceive the public, falsely inflate his financial support from farmers, and violate campaign disclosure laws,” Hall wrote. “A few mistakes are understandable, but such a large number of cases where ‘farmer, self-employed’ hides a donor’s principal economic identity is inexcusable.”

This is a breaking story. Check back for updates from Policy Watch.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Nine-member Board of Elections, Ethics Enforcement will revert to old structure Monday

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect a tweet from a Republican legislative leader.

The nine-member Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement will revert back Monday to five members appointed by the Governor if lawmakers don’t attempt a sixth time to restructure it.

It has not yet been made clear what transition process will be in place, if any, and who the five members of the Board of Elections will be, and Gov. Roy Cooper’s Office has not returned three emails seeking comment about it. The State Board was not immediately available for comment.

A three-judge Superior Court panel ruled the structure of the State Board unconstitutional. They wrote in a 2-1 opinion (along party lines) that the makeup of the State Board violates the separation of powers clause in the Constitution by diminishing the Governor’s control over the agency.

The current structure of the Board, per the court, would expire at midnight Monday. Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) has said several times over the past two weeks that lawmakers are negotiating with the Governor’s office to come up with a new State Board structure, but that has not been confirmed by Cooper’s office.

The nine-member current board is made up of four Republicans, four Democrats and an unaffiliated member. Eight members were appointed by Cooper from two lists of six individuals from the state Republican and Democratic Party chairs. That Board then appointed its ninth member.

The previous structure, which will be law again Monday, allows for the Governor to appoint five members from two lists of five individuals nominated by the state Republican and Democratic Party chairs, so long as he does not appoint more than three individuals registered with the same political party.

Each of those five members are to serve four-year terms, with no member serving more than two consecutive terms. That State Board is also different from the unconstitutional one because it is not charged with enforcing the state’s ethics laws.

North Carolina Chief Deputy Attorney General Alexander McC. Peters signed a letter Thursday confirming that the Superior Court panel’s order ruling the current structure of the State Board unconstitutional meant that it would revert Monday to the prior five-member structure, which was in existence until late 2016.

At issue all along also has been the legislature holding former Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s appointment of State Board Executive Director Kim Westbrook Strach. Per the prior law, the appointed five-member State Board would appoint its Executive Director.

County boards of elections will also revert to three members (not more than two from the same political party) appointed by the State Board. In the unconstitutional structure, county boards are made up of four members evenly split between the political parties.

Lewis apparently disagrees that the prior law would kick in upon the unconstitutional law expiring.

“The old elections board is gone,” he tweeted. “It cannot be resurrected via a dubious letter. Any attempt to do so would create chaos, is logistically impossible, and would throw election certification/investigations into jeopardy. And we’d all be in court. Again.”

Read the DOJ’s opinion letter about State Board below.

Reconstituting State Board of Elections by NC Policy Watch on Scribd

Commentary, Courts & the Law, News

Firestorm of opposition greets Farr nomination as it nears final Senate vote

Donald Trump’s nomination of veteran right-wing advocate Thomas Farr to a lifetime appointment as a federal judge in North Carolina’s Eastern District could receive a final Senate vote this week and the opposition from civil rights groups has turned into a true firestorm. The issue has also become entangled in the promise of retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona not to vote for any additional Trump nominees until there is a vote on legislation to protect special counsel Robert Mueller. As the New York Times reports:

Democrats have united behind a bid to derail the district court nomination of a judge who defended a racially gerrymandered House map in North Carolina and helped draft the state’s voter ID law, efforts that federal courts found were specifically designed to disenfranchise African-American voters, in one case, “with almost surgical precision”….

“It is no exaggeration to say that had the White House deliberately sought to identify an attorney in North Carolina with a more hostile record on African-American voting rights and workers’ rights than Thomas Farr, it could hardly have done so,” the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to the Judiciary Committee.

Among the civil rights organizations demanding that Farr be stopped are the NAACP and the Lawyers Committee for Civil rights Under Law. The NAACP called on Farr to withdraw yesterday saying:

Thomas Farr needs to withdraw his nomination immediately. We’ve always known Thomas Farr as the architect of the worst voter suppression law in the country. However, we have now found that he was more deeply engaged than anyone knew in intimidating Black voters during not one, but two of Jesse Helms’ campaigns for U.S. Senate.

This new revelation places him squarely at the center of notorious voter intimidation, not only in 1990 but in 1984. The activity was so egregious that President George H.W. Bush’s Justice Department sued the Helms campaign for violations of the Voting Rights Act. Farr is even identified in the complaint. In other Justice Department memoranda, he is described as the “coordinator” of “ballot security measures” designed to suppress the Black vote.

Farr not only defended voter suppression; he committed it himself. Moreover, he lied about his involvement to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Thomas Farr’s nomination is a disgrace to the justice system. If you engage in voter intimidation—anytime, anywhere—you should not become a federal judge in this country.

North Carolina NAACP leader T. Anthony Spearman is leading a delegation to Washington today. The group issued a statement from former U.S. Senate candidate Harvey Gantt opposing the nomination.

And this is from a Lawyers Committee communique late last night:

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued the following statement on the nomination of District Court nominee Thomas Farr. The statement followed new revelations yielded from a 1991 memorandum from the U.S. Justice Department regarding Farr’s role in schemes targeting African American voters dating back as far as 1984.

“New and damning information yielded from a 1991 Justice Department memorandum reveals that Thomas Farr was both architect and executioner of voter suppression tactics, including schemes dating back as far as 1984 targeting Black voters in North Carolina,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The Justice Department described Farr as the ‘primary coordinator’ of these schemes. This new information provides further evidence of the bias that Farr would bring to the federal bench. Moving forward with this nomination in light of this new evidence would make a mockery of the Senate’s advice and consent obligation. The Justice Department memo reveals a nominee who has been bent on suppressing the African-American vote for the past 34 years and raises questions about Farr’s truthfulness during the confirmation process.”

Clarke continued: “Americans deserve judges who will be fair, independent and impartial. Farr doesn’t fit the bill.”

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law stands opposed to the nomination of Thomas Farr. The 1991 Justice Department memo revealing new information regarding Thomas Farr can be found here.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

New voter ID bill moving fast through legislature

Lawmakers are expected to vote today on a voter ID bill that was released less than 24 hours ago.

The Senate select committee on elections was the first Tuesday to see Senate Bill 824, a measure to implement a voter ID constitutional amendment before the 2019 May primaries. A House draft version of the bill was released last week, but there were some changes made to the new proposed bill.

Similar to the draft House version, acceptable forms of ID in SB 824 that are valid and unexpired would include a state drivers license or DMV identification card, a U.S. passport, a tribal enrollment card issued by a federally or state recognized tribe and a drivers license or photo ID issued by another state if the voter’s registration was within 90 days of the election.

Student IDs issued by the University of North Carolina or private school systems or the community colleges could be considered acceptable if schools agree to issue those IDs per per requirements from the legislature, including making sure they contain photos and giving ID cards to students only after confirming their identity (social security number, citizenship status and birth date). There are also security measures the schools have to follow with regard to the equipment that produces student IDs.

The initial House draft voter ID bill did not include private and community college student IDs in its list of acceptable photo IDs.

Another change was made to the age that people can use an expired ID. The following photo IDs can be used to voter per SB 824 regardless of expiration or issuance dates: a military ID issued by the U.S. government; a veteran’s identification card issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; any of the allowed IDs, even if they’re expired, if the voter is at least 65 years old, as long as the ID was unexpired on their 65th birthday.

The bill provides three exceptions to the photo ID requirement: religious objections, reasonable impediments and natural disasters. Each would provide for voters to cast a provisional ballot, although the law does not define what constitutes a “reasonable impediment.”

Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe)

There were only five voting Senators present at the committee meeting Tuesday — they were all Republican members except for Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe).

Van Duyn had a number of questions for Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who chaired the meeting, but legislative staff answered most of them. She took issue with the “aggressive” schedule put forth in SB824 and expressed concern about how the public would be notified before the next election in six months.

She brought up remarks from the prior day’s legislative meeting that State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement Executive Director Kim Strach told them that with three years to educate the public, over 1,000 people were denied a ballot on Election Day.

“I realize that we have a constitutional amendment, but we’re in the process of writing the legislation to implement it — we’ve already demonstrated that even with three years, it was a tough job to do, and now we’re going to do it instantaneously?” Van Duyn asked. “That seems a little unreasonable.”

Hise later used what Van Duyn said to claim they weren’t starting from scratch on voter ID implementation and had “already done an information campaign three years to the voters before we begin.”

She quipped, “Right, implementation that was found to be unconstitutional, I just want to point out.”

Hise became agitated and said they “very much disagreed” about that ruling.

Van Duyn continued to ask several questions and eventually voted “no” on giving SB824 a favorable report. The rest of the four Republicans voted to pass it on to the Senate rules committee, which meets today at 2 p.m. in room 1128 at the Legislative Building (which now has an audio stream).

The Republicans in the Tuesday meeting did not engage in any discussion or ask questions about the bill before voting to move it on.

Van Duyn, after the meeting, acknowledged that the Senate bill was better than the House draft but said she still had a lot of concerns, including the timeline for implementation, the reasonable impediment provision and the use of expiration dates (which she thinks are unnecessary for proving identity).

“They’re rushing it,” she said. “They’re rushing the bill and they’re rushing implementing it.”

The Senate reconvenes on the floor today at 9:30 a.m., thought they will likely break unit 4 p.m. or later. The House reconvenes at 10:30 a.m.

Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

NC congressional Democrats ask McConnell to cancel Farr votes

Democratic members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation sent a letter this week to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urging the cancellation of all votes on the judicial nomination of prominent GOP attorney Thomas Farr.

President Donald Trump nominated Farr, who has ties to white supremacist Jesse Helms, to a U.S. District Court seat for the Eastern District of North Carolina. It is a lifetime appointment if he is confirmed.

The letter to McConnell was signed by U.S. Representatives David E. Price (NC-04), G. K. Butterfield (NC-01), and Alma Adams (NC-12). It states their concern for Farr’s record of voter suppression and points out the widespread opposition to his nomination.

“Mr. Farr’s confirmation will threaten the participation of African-Americans and other vulnerable populations in our political process,” the letter states.

Trump nominated Farr in July 2017 and then re-nominated him in January. The judicial vacancy he could fill is the longest running one across the nation at over 11 years.

Civil rights leaders have been outspoken in their opposition to Farr’s confirmation, particularly to the Eastern District of North Carolina, which houses almost half of the state’s Black population, but has never had a Black federal judge there in the District Court’s 145-year history.

Price, Butterfield and Adams want the Senate to allow Farr’s nomination to expire.

“Farr has a decades-long record of defending voter suppression tactics in North Carolina, including voter intimidation, discriminatory election changes, and racial gerrymandering,” a news release states. “In 1992, as the lawyer for former Senator Jesse Helms’ re-election campaign, he defended the campaign against U.S. Department of Justice complaints of voter intimidation after the campaign sent post cards to 100,000 black voters saying they were ineligible to vote and may be arrested for voting.”

If the Senate does proceed to a vote, Republicans only need one defector to defeat Farr’s nomination. Sen. Jeff Flake from Arizona said he would not be voting to confirm any more judicial nominees until his colleagues vote on a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Read the full letter to McConnell below.

18.26.11 Letter to Leader McConnell on Farr Nomination by NC Policy Watch on Scribd