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."