Powerful Republican lawmaker admits wrongdoing, seeks plea deal
In early 2019, State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, introduced a bill entitled “Civic Responsibility in Education.”
The measure would have required public school districts to teach students about respect for authority and service to others. The bill language defined good citizenship as “obeying the laws of the nation and State, abiding by school rules and understanding the rights and responsibilities of a member of a republic.”
Yesterday the U.S. government charged Lewis with two financial crimes, including illegally funneling $65,000 from a campaign bank account to a personal account he set up under a fake name and failing to file a tax return. He was charged with one felony and one misdemeanor, according to court records.
Under the terms of his plea deal, he could serve six months in prison, or possibly be sentenced to only probation.
“Today’s [plea] agreement with the government signifies my commitment to put an unfortunate chapter behind me,” Lewis said in a prepared statement. “The plea agreement is the result of my failing to file my 2018 tax return on time and my including a false statement on a bank form. These are my mistakes, and my mistakes alone. I am very sorry for these mistakes, and I apologize.
“I was raised on a farm, and I’ve been a farmer all my life. But farming has been tough for me for the past six years in a row and the financial stress I’ve been under has been tremendous. However, that is the reality facing many family farms, and it does not excuse my mistakes.”
Lewis should be accustomed to facing a judge. As one of the legislature’s most powerful members, he successfully introduced and rammed through a bill that would have required a photo ID to vote, which was struck down by the courts. As Policy Watch reported at the time, Lewis likened voter fraud to speeding. He said many people do it knowing they probably won’t be caught with a police force that’s spread too thin. Voter fraud, he said “is nearly impossible to catch.”
Lewis also advocated for the Defense of Marriage Act, which discriminated against LGBT people, and that the courts invalidated as unconstitutional.
But Lewis garnered by far the most attention during his years in the General Assembly for co-masterminding a set of redistricting maps that were nullified by the courts as unconstitutional for their blatant partisanship and disenfranchisement of Black voters. In justifying the maps, Lewis announced that, “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Yet in 2018, while Lewis was busy gerrymandering, his personal financial problems peaked. According to court documents, in February of that year, Lewis transferred $300,000 to his personal bank account from his campaign account — part of $500,000 he had borrowed from insurance executive John Gray, who was sentenced to 30 months in prison for bribery earlier this week in an unrelated case.
Lewis needed the money to cover farm debts. Although Lewis repaid the loan, intermingling personal and campaign funds is a violation of North Carolina elections law. He has not been charged with any crime related to that incident.
The federal charges, though, stem from financial transgressions that occurred that summer. The first criminal allegation against Lewis centers on two bank accounts from which he illegally funneled campaign money to a personal account that he established under a fake name. On July 31, 2018, Lewis opened a campaign account, which he later used to make legal political contributions to the state Republican Party. That day he had his campaign treasurer cut a check for $50,000, payable to “NCGOP.”
But the next day on Aug. 1, 2018, Lewis opened a second account at a different bank, under the name “NC GOP, Inc.” He allegedly lied to the bank that NC GOP, Inc. was a certified legal entity registered with the NC Secretary of State, and that he was the president of the organization. But no such organization existed.
Instead of sending the $50,000 check payable to “NCGOP” to the actual state Republican Party, he allegedly deposited it in his own NC GOP, Inc. account.
The same day Lewis wrote a $47,600 check from the NC GOP, Inc, account payable to Lewis Farms, his primary business. He also wrote a check for $2,050, payable to the landlord of his residence, according to court documents.
Two weeks later, Lewis allegedly used the same ruse — paying money from his campaign to his personal account NC GOP, Inc., while reporting it on his campaign finance reports as a contribution to the state Republican Party. This time, though, he used a cashier’s check, worth $15,000. That money went to yet a third bank account for Lewis Farms.
Later, Lewis actually made contributions to the state GOP for $50,000 and $15,000 from his personal accounts, which could have been an attempt to appear to comply with campaign finance law.
Lewis also allegedly failed to pay his federal taxes on farm income generated in 2018. His gross income that year was at least $84,200, court records say.
In retrospect, former House Majority Leader Paul Stam seemed prophetic, when, in 2011, he told his fellow Republicans that only Lewis should answer questions about certain provisions in the budget during the House floor debate because “David can obfuscate more than anybody I know.”
Lewis, who had served in the House since his election in 2002, resigned yesterday. He had previously announced he would not seek re-election in order to spend more time with his family and to work on his farm.
Campaign finance and voting rights watchdogs issued statements about Lewis’s departure.
Veteran clean government advocate Bob Hall, who was instrumental in exposing the corruption of former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black and who recently filed complaints against state Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger for paying himself rent from campaign funds that he used to to buy a townhouse in Raleigh and also accepting more than $50,000 in per diem expenses at the same time, expressed outrage at the news:
It’s scandal after scandal after scandal. Ten years ago, Republicans made big promises about cleaning up the cesspool of corruption that drowned the Democrats who then controlled the state legislature. But then those same Republicans started making deals and breaking fundraising records and now it’s the Republican leaders who are getting caught stealing and in the thick of political corruption.”
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which sued Lewis and other Republican lawmakers over the redistricting maps, said, “David Lewis and I disagreed on many policy issues that his party rammed through during the past decade, including discriminatory voter suppression and extreme partisan gerrymandering. Yet he was often approachable with an ear to listen and we even found some areas we could come together on. Despite our past differences, I genuinely enjoyed our skirmishes and am saddened for the circumstances of his departure. However, we must expect better from our elected officials who are placed in positions of trust.”
As for the Lewis’s bill, “Civic Responsibility in Education”, it passed the House but died in the Senate. The final section of the bill reads: “Each local board of education shall develop and implement character eduction with input from the local community. The instruction shall be incorporated into the curriculum and address the following traits:
The last line was left blank.