No resolution in campaign finance investigations

While reviewing back issues of YES! Weekly for a year-end compendium of the biggest stories we reported in Forsyth County in 2012, I stumbled across a pair of stories (1, 2) about NC Board of Elections investigations of Democratic political committees.

In one case, the campaign committee of Susan Frye, who was elected clerk of superior court in 2010, was accused of filing a "false and frivolous report" because campaign treasurer Chris Church filed a report for the period immediately before the election indicating that the candidate had raised and spent no money. In fact, the campaign had raised and spent about $15,000. It's critically important that candidates file accurate information in a timely manner so that citizens can see who is financing campaigns and assess whether acceptance of the funds is likely to sway the elected official to make decisions that might be in the interest of political patrons rather than the public whom they have pledged to serve.

In the other case, a political action committee called the Winston-Salem Black PAC drew large contributions from prominent donors such as Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines, the father of US Sen. Kay Hagan and Winston-Salem Chronicle publisher Ernie Pitt for the purpose of promoting Democratic candidates during the 2008 election, and then apparently misappropriated the funds — based on cash-on-hand balances mysteriously changing from one report to the next.

Considering that we reported on these investigations in May and July, I thought that it would be worthwhile to alert readers as to how they were ultimately resolved. My inquiry was premature, it seems.

"Both of those are still currently under investigation," said Amy Strange, a compliance specialist at the NC Board of Elections.

"I don't have a time frame," she added. "The time frame is usually dependent on how quickly we receive information we are seeking. At this point we are still seeking information from the committees and people associated with the committees."

That's right: All the people under investigation need to do is stall, and the investigations will remain open indefinitely. Perhaps the complainants will eventually get tired of waiting and give up.

Citizens, take note: The board of elections typically prioritizes cases that have been the subject of scrutiny in the news media and have generated significant public interest. The squeaky-wheel-gets-the-grease concept is operative. Candidates and the highly compensated consultants who work for them know that the board of elections is under-staffed and under-resources. They know they're more likely than not to get away with flouting election law by filing incomplete and late reports. 

Flouting the law, if it's not simply a matter of sloppiness, can serve the purpose of blindsiding opponents by making them think the candidate's committee hasn't raised much money when in fact it has. It can hide efforts to shift money around and secretly pay third parties to carry out deceptive electioneering efforts that manipulate voters' lack of sophistication.

And there's little will in the General Assembly to tighten up sanctions for violating the law or to provide adequate funding to the board of elections so staff can effectively do their jobs because, notwithstanding that these two particular investigations target Democratic committees, both parties are equal-opportunity offenders.

It's up to you, citizens, to demand the kind of honest and honorable government you deserve.

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