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Campaign Financing Part of Ethical Failures
By J. Barlow Herget
Published: Dec. 15, 2003
RALEIGH - Santa Claus will be leaving lumps of coal for at least three elected officials, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, Congressman Frank Ballance and former Davidson County Sheriff Gerald Hege. No doubt, Santa has a longer list and one hopes he’s checking it twice.
To date, Phipps has been convicted and Hege removed from office. Ballance is reportedly under federal investigation.
Some commentators see the cases of Phipps, Ballance and Hege as signs of changing times for the worse in North Carolina’s political ethics. I’m not so sure. Like the Bible’s observation on the poor, crooked politics “always ye have with you.”
There is one change in today’s politics that differs from times past, however, and that is the growing cost of political campaigns. Meg Scott Phipps figured to carry on the proud legacy of her father, former Governor Bob Scott, and her grandfather, the former Governor and US Senator Kerr Scott. Both men contributed greatly to the progress of this state. However, neither had to face the impact of today's campaign costs that drive politicians’ desperate search for money.
Sworn testimony in the Phipps trial pulled back the curtain on the seedy side of campaign fundraising. What may have been permissible during her father and grandfather's campaigns, before Watergate-era reforms became law, is clearly illegal today. Her campaign employees sought illegal cash contributions. They falsely reported the money to the state Elections Board.
Phipps spent over $1 million in her 2000 campaign. She is not an independently wealthy woman, and she believed she had to have the money to pay for advertising and outspend her opponent in the final weeks of her campaign.
The trial also revealed how she and her supporters sought contributions from businesses competing for contracts from the Department of Agriculture, especially companies and individuals in the carnival industry.
This last exercise isn’t unique to Phipps’ campaign. Given our current campaign financing system, candidates, seeking low-profile Council of State offices, often seek contributions from those with whom they will do business. Those people are the ones most interested in those campaigns. It’s all legal, if unseemly, and fraught with conflicts of interest.
Conflict of interest is the heart of the matter surrounding US Rep. Frank Ballance. Before being elected to Congress, Ballance used his clout in the state Senate to direct tax dollars to a charity in his home county, of which he was also the chairman. Apparently, millions of dollars have gone to the group to do good works such as treating those who suffer from substance abuse.
However, an inspection by state auditor Ralph Campbell, followed by an investigation by the Raleigh-based “Carolina Journal” uncovered pages of questionable expenses such as money for services never performed. Equally disturbing, the non-profit paid thousands of dollars for services by people who also happened to be key players in Ballance’s campaign organization.
Was any of this money recycled into his campaigns via these payments? Why wasn’t there more scrutiny of the non-profit’s management and spending? Voters deserve answers to these questions.
As for Hege, there's been no evidence so far to suggest corrupt campaign financing, just old fashioned Scrooge-like cheating of a charity. The publicity seeking, tough-talking sheriff is suspected of breaking the law in regard to threats against employees and misusing money from a charity he founded.
His performance is particularly galling because he sold himself to voters as a law ‘n order candidate who was tough on criminals, not unlike an unmasked, drug abusing Rush Limbaugh who preached zero tolerance against law-breaking, coke heads, but now wants to be judged differently himself.
But this is the time for hope and good cheer, so let us turn to better news. The recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that upheld most of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act will help reduce the influence of special interest money in federal campaigns. North Carolina’s Judicial Campaign Reform Act offers hope to do the same in appellate court elections.
Both pieces of legislation underscore the public’s desire to have clean and ethical campaigns. As one who has held elected office and who has scrounged for campaign dollars, I believe that most of my fellow politicians do play by the rules. That certainly was my experience and observation and continues to be.
For that, we can all be thankful this holiday season.