Immigration policy was front and center in North Carolina sheriff’s elections this past year — and pointed to as the deciding factor in many — but races in general have become increasingly scrutinized as individuals gain a better understanding about the crucial role the law enforcement officials play in shaping county policies related to public safety and the criminal justice system.
Democracy NC has been examining campaign finance data for the 2018 sheriff candidates as part of its commitment to ensuring the democratic process is open and transparent and to help the public understand how and by whom their campaigns are funded. Researchers took a special interest in the contributions and expenditures of unopposed campaigns.
In a letter sent this week to North Carolina Board of Elections Director Karen Brinson Bell, senior researcher Sunny Frothingham identifies nine 2018 sheriffs’ races with missing campaign finance data — all of which cross a $10,000 electronic reporting threshold.
“It is our understanding, per the State Board’s Campaign Finance Manual, that candidates who ‘show a cumulative total of more than $10,000 in contributions, loans, or expenditures during an election cycle must file electronically,'” the letter states. “Further, once a committee crosses that $10,000 threshold to file electronically, ‘the reporting requirement continues until the committee certifies as inactive or closes … even if all funds have been disbursed and the campaign has ended.'”
Frothingham states in the letter that there are a range of potential explanations for why there is missing data in the nine races, but asks the State Board to promptly review its files for any missing reports and to contact the candidate committees as needed to access the data, make them available to the public and assign any penalties as appropriate.
“Whatever the cause, this information’s absence prevents the public from fully understanding who has funded key office-holders in several North Carolina counties,” the letter states.
The following candidates and campaigns are who Frothingham identified in the letter as having missing campaign finance reports: The Johnson for Sheriff Election Committee, for Sheriff Terry S. Johnson (R-Alamance County); the Committee to elect Steve Whisenant for Sheriff, for Sheriff Steve Whisenant (D-Burke County); the Committee to keep Tony Durden Sheriff, for Sheriff Tony Durden Jr. (D-Caswell County); the Committee to Elect Kent Winstead for Sheriff 2018, for Sheriff Kent Winstead (D-Franklin County); the Campaign Fund for Jerry W. Jones, for candidate Jerry W. Jones (R-Franklin County); the Committee to Elect Lowell Griffin, for Sheriff Lowell Stewart Griffin (R-Henderson County); the Bizzell for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Roger Steve Bizzell (R-Johnston County); the Tracy Carter for Sheriff Committee, for Sheriff Tracy Lynn Carter (R-Lee County); and the Committee to Re-elect Sheriff Hans Miller, for Sheriff Hans Miller (R-Onslow County).
Some of those races show contributions and expenditures that are way over $10,000 that are unaccounted for in the online reports. Examples include the Alamance County race, which reported $48,081 in contributions in the first quarter, the Henderson County race, which reported $41,888 in total contributions in the second quarter and the Johnston County race, which reported $50,463 in expenditures in the third quarter.
The most extreme example, though, is in Burke County, where $124,316 in total contributions was reported by the end of the third quarter — $94,200 of those contributions were made prior to the only report available through the State Board.
The races in Alamance and Burke counties were both unopposed in the primary and general elections in 2018. Frothingham said in a phone interview Thursday that Burke County especially raised a red flag with a “shocking” amount of money not accounted for in reports.
“That just raises a lot of questions for us on what’s going on there,” she said.
It also raises some questions about the State Board’s resources, she added. Democracy NC did not file a formal complaint regarding the missing data, but Frothingham said they are wondering why so many gaps still exist this far after the elections. She added that the organization is happy to serve in a watchdog role, pushing for more transparency, but the missing data also shows the need for the State Board to devote more resources to investigating campaign finance.
As of Thursday, afternoon, the State Board had not formally responded to the letter.
“The State Board has received the letter, and campaign finance staff are reviewing it and will respond to the organization as quickly as possible,” said spokesman Pat Gannon. “We will forward you the response as soon as it is sent to the organization.”
Frothingham said she hopes Democracy NC will eventually be able to review all the campaign finance data to get a better sense of funding for sheriffs’ races. Read the full letter below.