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.

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