A clean-elections proponent filed complaints Thursday against state Court of Appeals Judge Phil Berger Jr.’s successful 2016 campaign, alleging inaccurate campaign finance reporting and several “suspicious” contributions.
Former nonprofit executive Bob Hall petitioned the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement for “a comprehensive audit and investigation of the financial records of Court of Appeals Judge Phillip E. Berger Jr. for apparent violations of campaign finance laws.”
“There are two individuals who say they are sure they did not make the donation attributed to them on the reports,” said Hall, the former executive director of the Durham-based Democracy NC nonprofit that says it promotes voting rights. “A third suspicious donation does not appear to be that person’s money.”
Without making any specific claims of quid pro quo, Hall’s complaint also documented campaign assistance provided in two instances by people appointed to state boards by a state legislature where the judge’s father, state Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Eden, is a major force.
The complaint also sparked questions Thursday about the accuracy of Judge Berger’s campaign reporting for 2016 fundraising events in Greensboro and Robeson County, and about whether the former owners of a video-poker operation in Eden contributed $10,000 to the younger Berger’s campaign in a futile effort to ward off closure of their gaming parlor.
As to the General Assembly, Hall’s complaint included details that implied an indirect link between the appointment of Robeson County educator Olivia Oxendine to the state Board of Education in 2013 and her later hosting of a fundraising event for Judge Berger’s 2016 campaign which, Hall alleges, was not properly documented.
In a similar vein, Hall noted that former North Carolina Republican Party chairman Tom Fetzer was appointed to the UNC Board of Governors by the state Senate “several months after” contributing $4,000 to Phil Berger Jr.’s campaign, “the largest single contribution he (Fetzer) has made to any candidate over the past 25 years.”
“That’s not illegal,” Hall said of political contributions following or preceding state board appointments. “It’s just why we have these disclosures, so people can see Phil Berger (Sr.) making appointments based on who’s giving money, and ask are those people feeling like there is a pay-to-play system that they want to be a part of?”
Judge Berger did not return calls Thursday to his Raleigh office from a News & Record reporter. But a Court of Appeals staff member told NC Policy Watch’s “Progressive Pulse” that he had no comment, the news and commentary outlet reported Thursday on its website.
Sen. Berger’s office referred inquiries about the complaint to Ray Martin, a spokesman for the Republican N.C. Senate Caucus. Martin criticized Hall’s complaint as the product of partisan animus.
“Bob Hall is a far-left, bottom-feeding partisan who has a longstanding personal hatred of Senator Berger and the policies he’s championed to put our state back on track,” Martin said in an email. “So I’m not surprised he’s peddling insane conspiracy theories as the election draws near.”
Martin said that Hall has amassed a “growing record of dirty dealings against Republicans.”
“It’s not hard to find evidence that his attacks are nefarious and politically motivated,” Martin added. “For some reason, the media always have sanctified him instead of investigating him.”
Martin pointed to reports several years ago by the conservative Civitas Institute that accused Hall of wielding undue influence with the state Board of Elections in what it described as thinly veiled efforts to help candidates with more liberal political views.
Hall denied that he is motivated by partisanship, noting that some years back he filed an initial complaint against former Democratic state House Speaker Jim Black that ultimately led to an investigation culminating in Black’s 2007 guilty plea and a prison sentence stemming from federal, political corruption charges.
“I’ve filed multiple complaints against Democrats,” Hall said. “It happens that the Republicans are in power and they are getting lots of money, so they are going to be looked at.”
Hall said he wanted to stress that the complaint was his own handiwork and not connected in any way to the nonprofit group that he formerly led.
But the recently retired Hall said that his interest in election issues continues unabated in retirement and that he will “likely be filing more complaints later this year” involving other political campaigns.
The appellate judge in Hall’s sights Thursday is both the son of state Senate Leader Berger and Rockingham County’s former district attorney.
A spokesman for the state Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement said the agency receives numerous complaints every year about alleged violations of laws governing political campaigning. Those involving money go to the agency’s campaign finance compliance staff for a review that might or might not lead to a hearing before the board, depending upon what the staff inquiry shows, the spokesman said.
Hall said in a telephone interview that a major focus of his complaint was the three “suspicious” donations that raise questions about whether the named donors were being used as conduits for “mystery money” from other sources who did not want to be identified publicly for some reason.
He did not name the three donors in his complaint “to avoid having the media or others contact these individuals before the state board’s investigators talk to them.”
Hall said he would provide the names separately to state elections officials.
Hall said that another major theme of his complaint deals with the 2016 “Berger for Judge” campaign’s alleged failure in several cases to properly document who provided the restaurant, home or other setting for fundraising events.
For example, he asserted “there are no expenditures or in-kind contributions disclosed by the Berger for Judge Committee for a fundraising event held on April 15, 2016 at Darryl’s restaurant in Greensboro.”
It’s just as important to know who provided the venue for a fundraising event and under what financial arrangements as it is to document who contributed how much to the candidate during the event, Hall said.
Hall also criticized the Berger for Judge campaign for not fully reporting the business backgrounds of its largest donors of the 2016 campaign, Maurice and Mary Raynor of Pittsboro, who the complaint identifies as owners of “many video-poker sweepstakes ‘parlors’ across the state for years.”
The complaint says they made their donation at a time when the Eden Police Department was moving to shut down their “Starlite Eden 1” parlor that earlier “had been allowed to operate while Phil Berger Jr. served as district attorney.”
Rather than identify the Raynors as sweepstakes execs, the Berger for Judge campaign listed them only as “owners of M&M Alpaca Farm in Chatham County,” Hall asserted.
Considering what was happening in Eden at the time they made their $10,000 in contributions, it would have been more accurate for the judicial campaign to identify the Raynors as president and vice president of a company that owned sweepstakes parlors, rather than only as alpaca farm owners, Hall said.
Their Eden sweepstakes site ultimately was closed, so Thursday’s complaint does not allege anything beyond the report’s failure to clearly identify their relevant business backgrounds, Hall said.
“What I don’t have is any possible role that Phil Berger had to play to help this man in his hour of need,” Hall said of Maurice Raynor.