DeJoy case reveals another scandal

Louis DeJoy of Greensboro, a major Republican donor and now the nation’s Postmaster General, is being reviewed by the FBI for possibly using “straw donors” to circumvent individual contribution limits in federal elections. Now the advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina and campaign finance expert Bob Hall are pressing Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman – who has jurisdiction over state election law violations – to open a state investigation.

Freeman is reluctant to do so for several reasons, and one of them is a scandal in itself – a shortage of investigators. The Wake County district attorney thinks it’s best to leave the investigation to the feds. She notes that they have the powers of a federal grand jury and DeJoy is a federal employee.

But beyond that there’s the practical issue of whether the state has the resources to take on a parallel investigation of contributions from employees at DeJoy’s High Point-based logistics company to Pat McCrory’s gubernatorial campaigns in 2012 and 2016. At issue is whether the employees at New Breed Logistics were illegally paid back for their political contributions. DeJoy has denied knowingly violating election laws.

For a state probe, Freeman would have to rely on the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI), which has only four agents assigned to its Special Investigations Unit. “It’s an incredibly small division and the bureau has many demands. There has been no increase in about 10 years,” Freeman told the Editorial Board. “For years I have raised that concern.”

And well she should. Saving money on public corruption investigators exacts a high cost. It means that even when evidence of violations surfaces, it may not be pursued. There’s only so much a handful of investigators can take on when they have to consider cases at the municipal, county and state levels.

The state Senate’s proposed budget seeks to transfer four elections investigators from the State Board of Elections to the SBI. But that move is more about Republicans taking power from a body controlled by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper than it is about bolstering the SBI. “Any reasonable person should come to the conclusion that the body charged with elections investigations should be as free from political influence – real or perceived – as possible,” said Lauren Horsch, a spokeswoman for Senate leader Phil Berger.

Instead of shifting investigators, lawmakers should let those at the board stay and hire more special investigators for the SBI.

In the meantime, Freeman said she will review the findings Common Cause brought forth based on Hall’s research.

Hall said campaign finance records show DeJoy, his family and 60 of his employees donated $300,000 to McCrory’s gubernatorial campaigns, but the employees showed little interest in contributing to other state campaigns. The 60 employees, Hall said, gave less than $8,000 to other North Carolina candidates or committees during 30 years.

If she had more investigators and legal firepower, Freeman might be inclined to mirror the federal probe with a state one. But given the state’s limitations, she’s likely to leave it to the FBI. Hall said she should coordinate with the FBI probe. “I just want more resources investigating public corruption,” he said.

Freeman thinks that would unnecessarily strain the state’s limited resources.

“I have tremendous respect for Bob Hall and Common Cause and I regret that they feel that I am in some way not fulfilling my responsibility,” Freeman said. “But I just don’t think the right thing to do is to launch a state investigation.”

Nonetheless, she said she will “pore over” Hall’s new findings and she will act if the FBI presents her with evidence of state violations.

It’s unfortunate that the General Assembly has not made it a priority to boost the state’s ability to investigate, even in the face of well-developed evidence. The next state budget should address that weakness with funding that will strengthen public integrity.