Latest News

Perdue's self-auditing keeps her out of trouble

Gov. Beverly Perdue has learned from a string of other Democrats that getting out in front of a campaign finance issue often avoids something far more uncomfortable - getting in front of television cameras to testify under oath.

So her campaign has been trying what it calls a proactive effort to fix problems with committee reports it filed with the State Board of Elections, performing a voluntary audit of her campaign finances and forfeiting donations that had a whiff of potential illegality.

Perdue said the disclosures keep with her administration's commitment to transparency.

"I am not at all reluctant to say that the campaign committee made a mistake and here it is," Perdue told reporters last week.

"I am very, very pleased with the level of credibility that we've tried to offer."

But that credibility is in danger of strain because Perdue has announced campaign report adjustments four times since August.

Three times she filed amended campaign reports to add a combined 31 previously unreported private flights valued at more than $25,000.

And earlier this month, The Bev Perdue Committee gave up $48,000 in contributions after allegations surfaced nine donors may have been reimbursed by their employer for the donations, which would be illegal for a contributor.

The adjustments allow Republicans to draw comparisons between Perdue and fellow Democrat former Gov. Mike Easley, whose failure to report several dozen private campaign flights led to his personal appearance before a state elections board investigative hearing of his campaign committee.

Easley's campaign was fined $100,000, and a local prosecutor is still looking at potential criminal charges. State Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer said the board should take a similar hard-line approach with Perdue. Fetzer also raised questions last month donations Perdue ultimately forfeited.

"Do you get off, do you get a free pass just because you beat the press and you beat the State Board of Elections by admitting you've done wrong?" Fetzer asked at a news conference, demanding a full-blown investigation.

He planned another meeting today to discuss what the party called other Perdue campaign irregularities.

Board investigators are looking into Perdue's activities as part of a broad review of campaign flights taken by 17 gubernatorial candidates since 2004.

It's also examining the origin of the forfeited contributions from donors linked to a Wilmington packaging company.

As long as additional big-money problems or evidence Perdue's campaign intentionally tried to break campaign laws don't surface, the governor's self-reporting likely will help the most in preventing her from facing a similar crowd as Easley.

The board has been kinder to candidates who self-report because it understands campaign finance rules are complicated and mistakes can be made, said Michael Crowell, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Government who used to represent candidates before the elections board.

Those who have allowed campaign finance problems to fester - such as then-House Speaker Jim Black and ex-Rep. Thomas Wright, both Democrats - faced criminal probes and ultimately received prison time.

"Even though the state board's staff has increased significantly in recent years, campaign finance reporting is still a self-regulating activity," Crowell said.

State elections executive director Gary Bartlett said the review of all gubernatorial candidates is the top priority of board investigators.

The five-member election board - three Democrats and two Republicans appointed by Perdue - would hold any investigative hearings.

Perdue and her campaign said they did nothing intentionally wrong and point out the audit started in January 2009 - months before Easley's flights were disclosed in the media.

The audit happened because the campaign said it spotted problems when it shifted to new reporting software and told the board about it in 2008.

House Majority Leader Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, praised Perdue for her willingness to address directly campaign report issues and said he's seen no evidence she tried to circumvent the law.

But Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic state government watchdog, said "the sheer number of unreported flights shows an intent to hide certain actions from public view."

He said the Perdue campaign didn't disclose anything until last August, after Easley's flights became known.

Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the 2008 GOP gubernatorial nominee, also missed two campaign flights that he's reported since the board's review began.

But campaign finance news dripping out from Perdue's campaign today is a distraction to an electorate that narrowly favored her over McCrory in 2008.

"She seems to be willing to own up when the committee makes mistakes and is sure she gets it right," longtime Democratic consultant Gary Pearce said, but "it's a nagging problem for her.

"We're in a climate where people will believe the worst about politicians."