NC elections board gets new chair, exec director

May. 01, 2013 @ 06:50 PM

RALEIGH — Five new members took their seats Wednesday on the state Board of Elections as the agency is launching an investigation into possible campaign finance violations involving dozens of political donations by sweepstakes cafe operators.

The meeting marked the first time in 20 years Republicans have made up the majority on the board, which enforces campaign finance laws. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory followed the tradition of appointing three members from his own political party and two from the opposing party.

Within minutes of being sworn in, the new board selected Republican Josh Howard as its chairman.

A Raleigh defense lawyer, Howard previously worked as the deputy chief of criminal prosecutions for then-U.S. Attorney George Holding, who is now a GOP congressman. He also worked as an associate independent counsel in Washington during the investigation of President Bill Clinton over his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

The board also quickly named Kim Westbrook Strach as the agency's new executive director, effective May 15.

Strach is currently the deputy director for campaign reporting. During her 13 years at the agency, she has helped lead investigations that resulted in criminal convictions against former Gov. Mike Easley and former state House Speaker Jim Black, both Democrats.

She was selected in a 3-2 party line vote after the board's two Democratic members objected to choosing a new director without meeting or evaluating any other candidates for the job.

The immediate split vote and the fact that new members chose to take their oaths of office from separate judges of their own political party immediately raised concerns about the potential for partisan friction.

"We should have had the opportunity to at least discuss who would be the next director," said Maja Kricker, a Chatham County Democrat. "In a couple weeks we may very well have decided unanimously on Ms. Strach. But this wasn't the way we wanted to start off. While I am a minority member on the board, I would hope my input would be relevant."

Howard, the new board chairman, said observers shouldn't read much into the divided vote to hire Strach, who he said was qualified and has a reputation as a tough investigator.

In her current role, Strach directed her staff to begin reviewing the political donations of Oklahoma sweepstakes operator Chase Burns shortly after his March arrest in connection to a veteran's charity that Florida prosecutors say was a front for a $300 million illegal gambling enterprise.

Records show Burns made $235,000 in political donations to more than 60 elected North Carolina elected officials before the 2012 election. Although the checks went to the campaigns of officials from both parties, some of the biggest donations went to top Republicans, including $8,000 to McCrory, $8,000 to Senate leader Phil Berger and $6,500 to House Speaker Thom Tillis.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press show most of the checks from Burns were mailed to the candidates by lobbyists at Moore & Van Allen, the Charlotte law firm where McCrory worked until just days before taking office in January. Affidavits filed by Florida investigators indicate the checking account Burns used to make the donations received deposits directly from his sweepstakes software company, a potential violation of a state law barring corporate funds from being used to make political donations.

The campaign finance watchdog group Democracy North Carolina filed a sworn complaint last week urging the elections board to investigate the political donations made by Burns, as well as 10 other sweepstakes donors. An AP analysis of campaign finance reports found that sweepstakes operators and their family members gave at least $520,000 in political donations to state officials since 2010, when the state legislature passed a law intended to ban the games.

The board's investigation of those donations is likely to probe the role of McCrory's former employer in delivering the checks to the campaigns, including that of the governor. Although McCrory appointed the elections board, new chairman Howard dismissed any concerns the agency's investigation would be anything other than professional and thorough.

"You don't put Kim Strach in charge if you are trying to hide things," Howard said.