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Tale of the tape: Video of an alleged UFO has congressman Mark Walker calling for a study. Page A2


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AP
Bribery case raises focus on GOP rising star and fundraising

RALEIGH — After a North Carolina insurance magnate and mega-political donor was indicted on bribery charges in April, some politicians who received his campaign dollars offloaded his money by giving it to charity.

But Republican party organizations tied to a GOP rising star in Congress show no signs of giving up nearly a quarter-million dollars from indicted businessman Greg Lindberg.

A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mark Walker says the North Carolina congressman didn’t control, and therefore couldn’t give away, most of the over $238,000 that Lindberg gave his campaign and affiliated committees.

However, an elections expert said Walker still benefited indirectly from the money that passed through his committees because it raised his clout in GOP circles.

The situation illustrates how political donations benefiting federal candidates can flow through a network of supporting groups, obscuring where the money winds up and what it’s used for.

Walker is an up-and-comer in GOP politics who once considered challenging incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis next year.

Lindberg contributed to Walker and his committees during a period when the Durham businessman was North Carolina’s largest political donor, giving more than $5 million since 2016 to state and federal candidates and committees. He favored Republican causes and politicians, but also gave to Democrats.

In April, federal prosecutors unsealed indictments charging Lindberg, two associates and former North Carolina Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes with trying to bribe state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. Lindberg wanted special treatment for his insurance businesses and planned to funnel up to $2 million for Causey’s 2020 re-election campaign, prosecutors said. Causey, a Republican, reported the approach to federal investigators and helped them build their case. He faces no charges. A trial is scheduled later this year.

Walker was questioned last year by federal prosecutors, who described the congressman as pressuring the state’s insurance commissioner on behalf of Lindberg as the investor dangled a $150,000 donation.

Amid the scandal, Walker donated thousands in Lindberg’s direct campaign contributions to charities, but far more Lindberg money had also gone to Walker-affiliated committees and was shared with political partners like the Republican National Committee. The money shared with other GOP entities benefited the congressman, too, said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who now works for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

“He still gets a benefit by having fundraised for the party,” Noti said. “He gets seniority benefits, committee assignment benefits.”

The Republican National Committee and National Republican Congressional Committee wouldn’t describe what they have done with Lindberg’s money. RNC spokeswoman Cassie Smedile said Lindberg’s criminal case has yet to be determined, adding: “The RNC uses the contributions we receive to win elections.”

Walker campaign spokesman Jack Minor said that except for the donations to the campaign, which Walker gave to charities, everything else was passed along to Republican entities that he doesn’t control.

Walker gave Lindberg’s maximum $5,400 campaign contribution to North Carolina Right to Life; a Greensboro family welfare organization; and a charity focused on research behind a test for early breast cancer detection.

“The campaign has not benefited from any of these funds, giving every dollar it had control of to charities that protect life, stop domestic violence, and prevent breast cancer,” Minor wrote in an email. “Congressman Mark Walker has served the people of North Carolina with the highest degree of integrity and honor.”

Lindberg’s $150,000 contribution in early 2018 plays a prominent role in the federal indictment.

The indictment says it went to “Public Official A,” whom public records indicate is Walker. The congressman “was not named in the indictment because he is not and never has been a target of the investigation and has committed no wrongdoing.” Minor wrote in an email Friday.

Lindberg sent the money to Walker’s Victory Committee, which raises money for Walker’s campaign and the RNC, the same day he learned Walker might help sway Causey, according to the criminal indictment. Walker twice spoke to Causey on Lindberg’s behalf, and told the regulator “that Lindberg was doing good things for North Carolina business,” prosecutors said.

Because Lindberg had already contributed the legal limit to Walker’s campaign, the big influx went to the national party, according to campaign records Minor provided.

Walker also didn’t control and couldn’t return $78,200 Lindberg gave another Walker committee, Minor wrote. All but about $500 of that Lindberg contribution to the Walker Freedom Fund went to the NRCC, which helps elect Republicans to Congress, FEC records provided by Minor show.

Lindberg also contributed to Republican North Carolina congressmen Richard Hudson, Patrick McHenry and Ted Budd. All three donated to charities the campaign contributions received from Lindberg, according to FEC reports filed in July.

Hudson went further, giving charities $10,000 that Lindberg gave to one of his separate fundraising vehicles, called a leadership political action committee. Noti said those PACs were intended to cover costs associated with serving in Congress, like travel.

The $5,000 Lindberg gave to Walker’s leadership PAC was “promptly deployed to support Republican candidates in Congress,” Minor said. Noti, the former FEC lawyer, said the congressman legally controls and could direct his leadership PAC to donate Lindberg’s funds.

John Pudner, a former political consultant who worked to elect Republicans in Virginia and Alabama and President George W. Bush in 2000, said if he were advising Walker, he would hold off on further action until Lindberg is either convicted or cleared. If Lindberg were convicted, Walker should make a gesture and give away some of what the mega-donor contributed to the congressman’s affiliated committees, Pudner said.

“I think you make a good faith effort to figure out how much you benefited from this,” said Pudner, now president of Take Back Action Fund, a nonprofit working to reduce the political influence of big money. “Put out a press release and say, ‘Hey, we want to avoid any appearance of impropriety. Therefore we believe we can ...’ and pick a figure.”


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Study finds long emergency room wait times in Triad hospitals

A national study on the average time spent waiting in hospital emergency rooms has confirmed what many of us have experienced: If it feels like time is moving slowly, that’s because it is.

For Moses Cone Hospital in Greensboro, the average wait time was 5 hours and 55 minutes for those who were admitted, and 3 hours and 26 minutes for those examined and released.

The study was conducted by ProPublica, an investigative news organization that reviewed roughly four years of federal data.

The wait time measures what the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid evaluates as “timely and effective care.”

Most people who go to an emergency room for treatment typically are seen initially by a doctor or medical practitioner.

“While timing can vary depending on why someone came to the ER — a sprained ankle may take less time to treat than unexplained chest pain — long wait times are often signals of overcrowding or staff shortages,” ProPublica said.

As has been the case during some recent flu seasons, the wait time can be even longer from December through February, a time when more people are exposed to the flu virus.

The average wait time at Forsyth Medical Center was 4 hours and 51 minutes for people who were admitted, and 2 hours and 48 minutes for people examined and released.

The average wait time at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center was 6 hours and 13 minutes for people who were admitted, and 3 hours and 8 minutes for people examined and released.

“Novant Health is not familiar with the ER Inspector report and cannot comment on its value to consumers without a better understanding of the measures included and how that information can be used to provide the best possible care for our patients,” a Novant Health spokesperson said. “Patient safety is paramount to Novant Health and we encourage patients to use all available resources to identify which health care decisions are right for them.”

Kenneth Rempher, Cone Health’s executive vice president of acute-care services and chief nurse executive, said that for patients with less critical conditions, “we have seen good early results from pilot projects in reducing wait times in our emergency departments.”

“We continue to expand options for convenient care in our community, including telemedicine, urgent care and primary care.” Rempher said.

Other findings

ProPublica also reported on emergency room-related violations, as identified during the investigation of a complaint.

Hospitals that participate in Medicare are subject to health and safety regulations that include inspections on a non-yearly basis. They also are evaluated on how they respond to consumer complaints.

Medicaid “only publicly releases violations found during the investigation of a complaint,” ProPublica said.

The group said violations primarily come from not properly assessing and treating patients, inadequate medical and nursing staff, and not following emergency room policies and procedures.

It also includes violations of the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act, which requires emergency rooms to provide a medical screening examination and treatment to stabilize anyone who comes to the emergency department, regardless of their ability to pay.

Wake Forest Baptist was found to have had five violations since January 2015, while Moses Cone had two and there were none at Forsyth Medical Center.

With five each, Wake Forest Baptist Rex Healthcare in Raleigh tied for the most by an urban hospital in North Carolina.

ProPublica said the study can be used as a tool to determine which hospital emergency department to choose for health care that is not life-threatening.

ProPublica warned that “if you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or other life-threatening emergency, do not use ER Inspector. Call 911 and seek care immediately.”

In 2018, Medicare removed a measure of the average time patients with broken bones had to wait before receiving pain medications.

It made that decision based mostly on concerns that that measurement “may create undue pressure for hospital staff to prescribe more opioids.”

“Experts caution that very small differences between hospitals for a given measure are unlikely to correspond to noticeable differences in the real world,” it said.

Billboards

Several health-care systems, including Novant Health Inc., have used billboards along interstates and major highways to tell what the wait times are in their emergency rooms.

Novant deployed the strategy for its Clemmons, Forsyth, Kernersville and Thomasville medical centers. The billboards provided the average wait time over an hour period, with the time updated every 15 minutes.

The health-care systems also post wait times for individual hospitals on their websites. Those times “represent the estimated average amount of time from entering the emergency department to being placed in a treatment area,” Wake Forest Baptist says on its website.

In most instances, the time typically ranges from 15 minutes to an hour.

“Cone Health never posted emergency-department wait times online,” spokesman Doug Allred said. “We did post urgent-care wait times for a while.”

The billboards were part of a national trend with no set standard for how wait times are defined, according to industry and advocacy groups.

Numerous reports have presented the pros and cons of the initiative, with most recommending caution by health-care systems and consumers. Some hospitals offer an online service to allow individuals to secure a reserved time at an urgent-care center.

The Emergency Medicine Residents’ Association said the federal government is playing a role in the billboards strategy by tying emergency-department wait times to Medicare and making the times available at www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov.

“Although supported by the government, there are many in the medical community who oppose advertising wait times,” the association said. “One argument is that hospitals which advertise wait times do so simply to lure patients away from competing hospitals.”

The American College of Emergency Physicians report found that “publication of desirable wait times engenders goodwill with hospital administration and improves the image of the ED within the surrounding community.

“In essence, the practice of publishing wait time data may theoretically assist with workload distribution without losing revenue for the system as a whole.”