Greg Lindberg, the man who knew too many

Greg Lindberg, the man who knew too many

How Lindberg’s ties to Dan Forest, and a whole lot of others, expose the holes in our ethics, election laws

(Photo credit: Greglindberg.com)

F or a man who knew everybody, Greg Lindberg might seem in the coming days like a man who knew nobody.

Proximity to federal agents is not the sort of thing the political class seeks in an ally.

And Lindberg, the indicted financier tied up in a widening bribery scandal, is so intimate with federal investigators’ sonorous tones and heavy breathing upon his shoulder he can tell you what their agents had for lunch (my guess is roasted chicken, brown rice, steamed cauliflower and a half-gallon of black coffee; these are not the sort to dally with extraneous carbs).

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican candidate for governor, is the latest public official footnoted in this sordid episode, which already saw ex-N.C. GOP Chairman Robin Hayes plead guilty last year for lying to federal investigators. 

As WRAL reported last week, Forest’s chief of staff, Hal Weatherman, reached out to Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey’s office in August 2017 to arrange a meeting for two men—including Lindberg—later accused of trying to bribe Causey.

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican candidate for governor, is the latest public official footnoted in this sordid episode.

Investigators say Lindberg ultimately wanted Causey’s office to swap a state regulator reviewing Lindberg’s companies with a Lindberg employee, John Palermo. Palermo, by the way, is also being charged with bribery and conspiracy.

A point of order: At this moment, there remains a lot unknown as it pertains to Forest’s entanglements with the tentacular power broker, Lindberg. 

And, for what it’s worth, if it constituted a crime for powerful politicians to stress the limits of responsibility and “press-the-flesh” with their wealthy suitors and vote in ways that directly or indirectly benefit said deep-pockets, know this: Robin Hayes, if he’s ever jailed, would have a few hundred new bunkmates from North Carolina before he could settle into his cell. 

But it is relevant today that Lindberg, an omnivorous donor whose largesse extended to both Republicans and Democrats, was feeling especially generous toward Forest after Weatherman’s inquiry. 

As WRAL noted, associates of Lindberg and his consultant John Gray—who’s also indicted in this case—directed more than $50,000 into Forest’s campaign within the month. And Lindberg contributed $400,000 to a political action committee controlled by Forest that month. By the end of 2017, Lindberg had contributed $2.4 million to pro-Forest committees. 

If it constituted a crime for powerful politicians to stress the limits of responsibility and “press-the-flesh” with their wealthy suitors and vote in ways that directly or indirectly benefit said deep-pockets, know this: Robin Hayes, if he’s ever jailed, would have a few hundred new bunkmates from North Carolina before he could settle into his cell. 

Forest insists Lindberg asked for nothing in return, although the allegations against those individuals indicted by federal officials declare returns to be exactly what they had in mind when Hayes arranged a similar meeting. For his part, Weatherman told WRAL in an email that he believed the meeting related to one of Lindberg’s companies relocating in North Carolina. 

If there is anything that might be giving state officials the screaming fantods at this moment, it could be what comes next. The late Sen. John McCain once cracked that, with all the other shoes dropping in the Trump-Russia story, they must be falling from a centipede.

It’s conceivable that Lindberg has his own centipede. New motions filed this week suggest federal investigators have at least 80 hours of recorded calls and about 390,000 documents seized from Gray and his associates. In other words, as WRAL reporter Travis Fain tweeted Tuesday, “if you’re an NC politician, and you’ve been emailing with Greg Lindberg, John Palermo or John Gray, there is a good chance the FBI knows.”

If this whole story offends you, that is a reasonable reaction. Shout about it, I say, although I’d forewarn that if you are shouting about this one instance of power directing government and not the other way around, be sure that your grievance will compete for space among the other alleged abuses.

It is like shouting inside of a wind tunnel. Try as you might, how is anyone to hear you above the din? 

If this whole story offends you, that is a reasonable reaction.

Indeed, the Lindberg case is not the illness, but its symptom, as much an expression of politicians’ excess as it is the abscess where ethics laws should be.

Cash influences our actors in state and federal government because they are, of course, subservient to it. Having money doesn’t guarantee victory, but not having it often assures defeat. 

Political patronage has so completely subverted good government. Campaign contributors have so capriciously unseated constituents. Dark money has so greedily consumed individual, small-dollar donors. And, postCitizens United, the corporate colonialists have so easily dispatched local and state advocates. 

These issues toxify D.C., but they trouble North Carolina to the extreme as well. The canyons in our outdated ethics laws allow companies to court powerful policymakers with pricey meals and hotels. They assure that money, not constituencies and core issues, deliver elections. And they require that all parties believe that, if they hope to compete, they must be complicit. 

If true, the Lindberg allegations are troubling in and of themselves, but if they inspire anything more than disgust, let them inspire the exhaustive reforms that state and federal election and ethics laws require.

Let them add fuel to the already growing support for public financing of elections, more transparent contributions laws and a more agile regulatory apparatus, one not rendered a feckless Elmer Fudd.

The major donors are fond of playing both sides in state and federal legislatures, but there are really only two sides: Those who believe in the unvarnished truth and those who do not. There is only the truth and what you do with it, never mind whose political party gains and whose loses.

North Carolina and the U.S. need a reckoning. Our ethics laws are either ineffective or inscrutable, written by those who stand to gain strength from their weakness. You can appreciate its beauty and its cruelty at the same time.

One can only hope that the scandal generates the same righteous outrage that fueled conservative state lawmakers’ plumbing of Gov. Roy Cooper’s involvement in the Atlantic Coast Pipeline permitting, an investigation that, despite its obvious partisan overtones and manipulations, raised some reasonable questions about how politics impacts regulators. But the crickets coming from the would-be Perry Masons in the Legislative Building regarding the Lindberg mess is telling. Silence will not acquit them.

North Carolina and the U.S. need a reckoning. Our ethics laws are either ineffective or inscrutable, written by those who stand to gain strength from their weakness. You can appreciate their beauty and their cruelty at the same time. And if the Lindberg allegations are true, they are crushingly corrosive to our form of government, a corrosion the lion’s share of Americans have recognized by this point.

Greg Lindberg will be characterized as a donor politicians would not deign to know.

But for those who recognize the disproportionate influence of major donors in our government, and the yawning holes in our ethics laws, Greg Lindberg looks terribly familiar.