Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sausage-making and campaigns

We've all heard the old line about legislation and sausage -- that neither should be watched in the making. But for stomach-turning details, it would be hard to beat the N.C. State Board of Elections hearings in Raleigh this week. If you've tuned in to the Web streaming or watched on TV, you know that the list of unseemly things should include political campaign finance operations.

Consider: In just a day and half we've heard testimony that:

* Scores of flights to political events worth more than $87,000 were never reported on required state campaign finance disclosure forms by former Gov. Mike Easley's political campaign in 2000 and 2004. The pilot, McQueen Campbell, essentially gave the flights to Easley. Easley later named him to the N.C. State University board of trustees. Campbell helped the Easleys in several ways, including helping Mary Easley get a job at N.C. State. It was a cozy arrangement.

* The campaign treasurer, Raleigh lawyer Dave Horne, told the board Tuesday morning that it wasn't his responsibility to find out about airplane flights the governor might have taken to make sure they were properly reported. He later testified that he did make sure airplane flights were properly reported for the flights that he knew about or helped arrange from another pilot.

* When Easley needed someone to assess whether his Raleigh home -- while his family lived in the Executive Mansion -- needed repairs, he asked old friend and pilot Campbell to look at the problems and have them fixed. When Easley had yet to ask Campbell how much he owed, Campbell said he called Easley and understood the governor to instruct him to send the campaign a bill for some of those unreported flights so that they totaled up to the cost of the home repairs. They cost 11,000.

* When a campaign aide balked at paying one bill and asked for documentation, she said, Easley called to tell her it was okay and to just pay the bill. Then the kicker: Easley filed a claim for the damage with his insurance company and collected something like $5,400. Campbell got paid with campaign money, not insurance money, but here's the thing: At that time, it wasn't even illegal to convert campaign money to pay for personal things -- as long as the candidate reported the money as income. Uh, oh.

* Campaign contributors such as Lanny Wilson and Nick Garrett told how they had helped raise a lot of money for the Democratic Party and believed it was headed right for the Easley campaign. Wilson also told the Easley campaign they should tap developer Gary Allen for a $50,000 contribution to the Democratic Party that would make its way to the Easley campaign. In exchange, Allen wanted reappointment to the N.C. Wildlife Commission and a state environmental permit for a boat ramp on the coast. That's just the way it happened. Can you smell the aroma?

* In questioning this morning it was clear that Board of Elections members believe that the Easley campaign had cooked up a plan to run big campaign contributions through the state Democratic Party or the Democratic Governors Association. There's a $4,000 limit on contributions to individual campaigns, but not on political party campaign contributions to political campaigns.

* Campaign Treasurer Dave Horne couldn't recollect such a scheme. He also told Board Chairman Larry Leake that he couldn't understand why anyone would want to avoid having a controversial contributor's name on Easley's campaign disclosure reports by first donating the money to the Democratic Party in the foreknowledge that it would wind up in Easley campaign hands. I'm guess Horne was the only one in the room who couldn't understand that scheme -- or who would say they didn't understand it.

Politics is a contact sport in many ways, and it takes more than a large checkbook and a strong stomach. But what's troubling about the elections board hearings so far is that they show a disregard for the letter and spirit of the law by a campaign and a candidate who first came to political prominence as a crime-busting prosecutor with a squeaky-clean image. Worse yet, they draw a picture of a man who would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to spend money for items that everyone else in the world has to find a way to pay for. I don't know if that set of circumstances involving the home repairs and the insurance claim he filed will put him in a courtroom, but it's one of the seamiest stories I've ever heard told about a North Carolina governor going back more than 40 years of covering N.C. politics.

This is exactly what Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory was talking about when he referred to the culture of corruption in Raleigh. It seems to pervade everything -- personal dealings, party fund-raising, favor-taking and favor-granting and, when investigators come calling, a whole lot of smart people suddenly unable to remember certain details. It reminds me of what Sen. Sam Ervin said in the Watergate hearings 35 or so years ago: A good forgettery is better than a good memory. Sheesh.