Campaign finance investigation of Senate Elections Committee chair continues

Campaign finance investigation of Senate Elections Committee chair continues

Senator Ralph Hise

More than a month after a deadline to correct faulty campaign finance reports, N.C. Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell) has yet to fully explain missing donor information and what appears to be a misappropriation of around $10,000 by Hise himself.

The campaign finance violations have drawn the ire of voter rights advocates and activists, including a billboard campaign to publicize Hise’s problems and pressure him to recuse himself from the legislature’s efforts to restructure state and local elections boards. Hise, a four-term Senator who chairs the powerful Senate Select Committee on Elections, has said little about the controversy.

Back in March activist Greg Flynn of Raleigh filed a complaint against Hise with the state board of elections, pointing out a series of problems with Hise’s campaign disclosures. Among them:

  • Hise loaned about $50,000 to the campaign, but was repaid about $60,000 according to the reports.
  • Required information about campaign contributors – including employers and addresses – were missing from the reports.
  • A failure to report more than $9,000 that nine political action committees reported making to his campaign over a four year period.
  • A failure to provide itemized information on thousands of dollars in campaign disbursements.

In May Hise released a short written statement that has stood as his only comment on the allegations.

“We recently concluded an internal review of the campaign’s finance reports and found some bookkeeping corrections that need to be made,” Hise said in the statement. “We’re working to correct those now and have sent a response to the State Board of Elections.”

Hise asked for the board to give his campaign until May 5 to amend its filings. As of this week, the board has yet to receive all of the missing documentation. An audit is ongoing and Hise declined to comment further for this story.

“I can only tell you at this point that this case remains under investigation and that the Hise committee is cooperating,” said Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Voting rights watchdog group Democracy North Carolina looked further into Hise’s reports and concluded he has the worst disclosure record of any current lawmaker.

Bob Hall

Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, said part of the problem is the state board’s woeful lack of resources and funding to do proper audits of campaign disclosures.

“They definitely are underfunded and way behind,” Hall said this week. “There’s a huge backlog in processing campaign reports in the simple steps of getting the data entered so that they can see whether the numbers add up from one report to another and if a contribution given by a PAC is recorded as being received.”

There are plenty of campaign reporting problems, Hall said, but Hise’s case is particularly egregious.

“There’s just a huge volume of missing information from his records,” Hall said. “They really need to get his bank records, the bank records of that campaign account and possibly even his personal bank records, to understand how the payments on the loans are going and whether receipts from the PACs were timely deposited.”

Given Hise’s powerful position at the heart of important issues such as redistricting and the very structure of the organizations now investigating him, Hall said he should recuse himself from those deliberations.

“Once the whistle has been blown and he’s been found in serious violations, he can’t just paper over it and pretend like nothing’s wrong,” Hall said.

Hall’s group is now spreading that message through a billboard campaign that urges voters to look into Hise’s campaign finance problems. But even that has been made more difficult due to Hise’s influence, Hall said.

“We do have one billboard in each of three counties he represents – Rutherford, McDowell and Madison,” Hall said. “But we’ve had trouble getting them.”

Democracy North Carolina originally contracted with Fairway Advertising for a billboard in McDowell County and Lamar Outdoor Advertising in Mitchell County. But after signing contracts, selecting locations, putting together artwork and making changes, both companies eventually cancelled the planned advertisements, saying they were “too political and controversial and might cause problems for the company,” Hall said.

The billboard industry has active business before the legislature, Hall said, and may not want to rock the boat by approving ads that question a powerful GOP senator.

Whatever comes of the Hise investigation, Hall said, people deserve to know who is financing the campaigns of North Carolina lawmakers and how they are using that money.

Jonathan Jones, director of the North Carolina Open Government Coalition, agrees.

“Campaign finance disclosures are a critical tool for the democratic process,” Jones said this week.

“They give voters the opportunity to see who is funding a campaign, how those funds are being spent, and how both of those might relate to a candidate’s position on key issues. It is paramount that the required disclosures be accurate and up to date so that voters can make informed decisions about who will represent them.”