Campaign-finance laws: a tangled web?

Published 7:05 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

Staff Writer

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in an occasional series on campaign finance.
So far this year, perhaps the most contentious state political news has centered around alleged violations of campaign-finance law.
Late last year, the State Board of Elections slapped the campaign of former Gov. Mike Easley with a $100,000 penalty, including a fine and the board’s cost for an investigation.
The board levied the penalty because Easley’s campaign hadn’t reported flights provided by a supporter, the (Raleigh) News &Observer has reported.
More recently, Gov. Beverly Perdue handed over $48,000 in campaign contributions out of concern that the donors might have been reimbursed by their employers, which would be illegal, The Associated Press has reported.
Easley and Perdue are Democrats.
On the other side of the coin, the North Carolina Democratic Party has complained over flights taken by former Republican gubernatorial nominee Pat McCrory, various media outlets have reported.
With questions swirling around past gubernatorial candidates, the State Board of Elections is looking into the travel expenses of recent seekers of the governor’s job.
Faced with these issues on the state level, what can lower-level candidates do to make sure they’re complying with campaign-finance law?
The laws governing how campaign money can be collected and spent might frighten some candidates, indicated Kellie Harris Hopkins, Beaufort County’s elections director.
“I think it scares people,” Hopkins said during a recent candidates-orientation session held at the Beaufort County Board of Elections’ offices in Washington.
“It’s no big deal,” Hopkins added. “It’s a little bit of work.”
The laws are clear, and the Board of Elections is there to usher candidates through the campaign-reporting process, she advised.
Campaign money 101
During the orientation, Hopkins schooled candidates on what’s expected of them when it comes to listing and reporting campaign contributions and expenses.
She said that all campaign treasurers must complete a mandatory training course for campaign finance within three months of being appointed to their posts.
Addressing confusion about what constitutes a campaign committee, Hopkins said that all candidates have a committee.
“It might just be happy you, but everybody has a committee,” she said.
Those committees are representative of the candidate, and the organizations have to file detailed campaign reports if they collect more than $1,000.
The committees have to file their reports by certain deadlines imposed by the state.
Local candidates can be assessed a penalty of $50 a day for filing after the deadline, Hopkins said.
An individual may give no more than $4,000 to a single candidate per election, Hopkins said.
This means that a person could give his or her chosen candidate $4,000 ahead of the primary election and follow up with another $4,000 before the general election.
Media reports show that this was the problem with the unreported campaign flights, whose values easily surpassed the $4,000 threshold.
Individual contributions of less than $50 are aggregated in reports, and people who give $50 or less won’t see their names made public as part of those reports, Hopkins noted.
Contributors who give more than $50 will have their names, addresses, occupations and some other information published in the reports, reads an orientation booklet compiled by Hopkins.
The rules are different for political parties, a fact that has brought protest from some quarters.
The North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform advocates prohibiting the parties from giving unlimited cash to legislative and statewide candidates, according to the advocacy group’s Web site.
‘Mixed emotions’
Seth Edwards is fortunate among Beaufort County-based candidates.
The incumbent district attorney is unopposed as he seeks re-election this year, meaning the pressure to raise funds won’t be as great as it has been in years past.
As the lead local prosecutor, Edwards, a Washington resident, has to run in multiple counties in his district, and often he has to tap the same sources over and over while looking for donations.
In general, the district attorney doesn’t have access to political action committees and advocacy groups, and the two major parties often focus their money on legislative or presidential contests, he said.
“These local races like mine, and even the county commissioners, what we’re doing is we’re going to the local people and asking them for their money,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he approaches his constituents when he needs contributions.
“I don’t have the Democratic Party of North Carolina or other large corporate-type contributions,” he said. “I’m not allowed to even accept contributions under the campaign finance (law) from a corporation, for example. Lots of times it’s some of the same people in the local area that I’m going after.”
So, what should be done about money in politics? Like other self-made experts on the subject, Edwards wasn’t entirely sure.
Asked whether he would favor broadening public financing of elections, Edwards said he had “mixed emotions.”
“I can see, on the one hand, I think the purpose behind public financing is to try to take the favoritism out of elections,” he said.
He added that public financing has been achieved because people elect to participate by putting in a little money while filing their taxes.
“I don’t know that the taxpayers should necessarily foot the bill for a DA race,” Edwards said.