CHARLOTTE — North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey expects to spend the closing days of his Republican primary not on the campaign trail but in a federal courtroom.
Causey is likely to be a star witness in the bribery trial of Durham businessman Greg Lindberg and two associates. The trial is scheduled to start Tuesday in Charlotte.
It was Causey’s cooperation with federal authorities that led to the 2019 indictments in what prosecutors call North Carolina’s biggest political bribery case. It already has resulted in the conviction of former state GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, who awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.
With the trial looming, Causey, 69, faces a rematch with Charlotte contractor Ronald Pierce, 62, in the March 3 primary for state insurance commissioner. The winner will go on to face Wayne Goodwin, the former commissioner and current chair of the state Democratic Party.
Causey’s 2016 election was his fifth try for the post since 1992. A retired insurance agent from Greensboro, he became the first Republican ever to hold the job, which makes him the state’s fire marshal in addition to top insurance regulator.
Normally a low-profile job, it’s been anything but.
In addition to the Lindberg case, Causey last year called on the CEO of North Carolina’s largest health insurance company to step down after an arrest for DWI and misdemeanor child abuse. That prompted the company to halt a multi-million dollar merger.
And an insurance department attorney is currently the lead prosecutor in the case of a Gaston County man accused of killing his wife with eye drops in order to cash in a $250,000 insurance policy.
“Who would think to kill somebody with eye drops?” Causey told a reporter.
One candidate’s battles
Pierce is a Charlotte contractor and former helicopter and jumbo jet mechanic who ran for the office in 2016, when he finished third in the GOP primary. He has had repeated run-ins with insurance companies and the department he hopes to run.
In 2014, then-Commissioner Goodwin announced that Pierce had been arrested on 108 fraud charges. The department accused him of inflating hail-damage repair estimates and receiving $450,000 in fraudulent claims payments from insurance companies. The charges were eventually dismissed.
In 2015 Pierce wrote a book called “Pissed Off.” According to his website, it “completely chronicles his battle with the Insurance Companies and . . . the North Carolina Department of Insurance.”
He said he’s running to rein in the insurance companies.
“The insurance companies are running the Department of Insurance, not the commissioner of insurance,” he told a recent forum in Charlotte.
Pierce faces a clear fundraising gap with Causey.
New reports show that he had less than $500 on hand at the end of the year to Causey’s $138,000. Goodwin, the Democrat, had $235,000 on hand.
Causey said he’s running on his record. He touted his department’s assistance to 250,000 consumers with insurance issues. He doesn’t believe his campaign has been affected by the Lindberg case, which already has claimed his party’s chairman as victim.
“I’ve not heard one negative thing,” he said. “All the comments I’ve heard have been positive.”
Lindberg has been one of the state’s biggest political donors. He’s donated heavily to committees supporting the campaigns for Republican Lt. Gov. and gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest as well as Goodwin. The indictment also mentions Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro, though not by name.
Last year’s indictment charges Lindberg, John Gray and John Palermo with trying to bribe Causey with up to $2 million in campaign contributions in return for his removing or replacing the regulator that examined Lindberg’s Global Bankers Insurance Group.
Causey said he alerted law enforcement voluntarily after attending an FBI seminar in Charlotte.
“I just casually mentioned to the assistant U.S. attorney,” he said, “that I had a situation or two and may need their help.”