Art Pope think tank pulled into lawsuit over NC voter suppression bill

Lawyers for plaintiffs challenging North Carolina's restrictive new voting law have notified the Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank founded and largely funded by GOP mega-donor Art Pope, that it must preserve all documents related to the measure.

A conservative think tank that was founded by Republican mega-donor Art Pope and that receives most of its funding from him has been pulled into a lawsuit targeting North Carolina's restrictive new voting law. Pope now serves as the North Carolina budget director under Gov. Pat McCrory (R).

This week the John W. Pope Civitas Institute received a letter from an attorney representing the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and 92-year-old North Carolina voter Rosanell Eaton, who have filed a lawsuit against the governor challenging parts of House Bill 589, the Voter Identification and Verification Act (VIVA), which McCrory recently signed into law. Among the harshest state election laws passed in recent years, VIVA imposes a strict photo ID requirement, shortens the early voting period, ends same-day registration, eliminates Sunday voting, and makes it easier to challenge voters, among other controversial provisions. Critics have pointed out that the law will likely have a disproportionate impact on people of color and students, both Democratic-leaning constituencies.

"I am contacting you to inform you that your organization may be requested to produce certain documents in your possession that are relevant to these issues," says the letter to Civitas from attorney Adam Stein with the Chapel Hill, N.C. office of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen. It continues:

In connection with this lawsuit, please preserve -- and do not destroy, conceal, alter, and/or make inaccessible -- any paper or electronic files, other electronically stored information or data generated by and/or stored on your computer systems, portable electronic devices (e.g., Blackberrys, iPhones, pagers, etc.) and storage media (e.g., hard disks, USB drives, CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, backup tapes, etc.) that relate in any way to H.B. 589 or any other legislation concerning North Carolina's elections laws that was proposed or enacted during the 2013-2014 session (regular or special) of the North Carolina General Assembly. This obligation includes, but is not limited to, any documents, files, and/or communications from or to the Civitas Institute relating to its efforts to support or oppose the enactment of any legislation concerning North Carolina's elections laws that was proposed or enacted during the 2013-2014 session of the North Carolina General Assembly. This preservation obligation includes, without limitation, paper documents; email and other electronic communications; word processing documents; spreadsheets; presentation slides; databases; calendars and calendar entries; diaries; meeting notes; telephone logs; contact manager information; Internet usage files; offline storage for information stored on removable media; information contained on laptops or other portable devices; and network access information.

A recent Facing South investigation documented the substantial role that Pope's influence network, including the Civitas Institute, played in the effort to advance the state's new voting restrictions. Civitas used its publications to amplify fears of voter fraud and press the cause for photo ID, despite a lack of evidence that the kind of fraud prevented by such laws is not a problem in North Carolina. It gave a platform to the Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina, a tea party-connected group that has challenged registrations of thousands of voters, almost all of whom were found to have been properly registered.

And when Montravias King, a student at North Carolina's historically black Elizabeth City State University, showed up at a hearing at his local county elections board last month to defend his bid for a city council seat from a challenge by local Republican Party chair Richard "Pete" Gilbert, who had previously challenged scores of registrations of students from the school because they had registered to vote at their campus address, Gilbert was accompanied by Susan Myrick, an elections analyst with Civitas. (EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a different person than former Congressperson Sue Myrick of North Carolina.) In addition, Civitas Action -- the 501(c)(4) "social welfare" sister group to the Civitas Institute, a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit -- is among the political groups connected to Pope that provided support to legislative candidates who went on to play important roles in the passage of new voting restrictions.

The Civitas Institute is also the group that launched a controversial database of information about people arrested during the Moral Monday protests against the legislature that were led by the N.C. NAACP.

Founded in 2005 to "facilitate the implementation of conservative policy solutions" and named in honor of Art Pope's father, who built the Variety Wholesalers discount retail empire that Art Pope now runs, Civitas gets over 90 percent of its funding from the Pope family foundation -- so much so that the IRS classifies it as a "private foundation," a designation reserved for nonprofits that depend on a single benefactor.

Meanwhile, Civitas is now using the letter it received from the NAACP legal team for fundraising purposes. A mass email sent out Tuesday by Civitas President Francis X. De Luca begins, "First the NSA -- then the IRS -- now its [sic] William Barber, the NAACP and its lawyers who want to snoop on Civitas!" Likening itself to "David fighting Goliath," Civitas asks its supporters to make a donation to help pay its legal bills. The letter includes a mugshot of N.C. NAACP President Rev. William Barber over which has been superimposed the words, "Give me your diaries."

Civitas apparently plans to fight any legal bid to make it turn over documents: Its fundraising letter closes with a postscript that says, "With your support we can stand up to Barber and the NAACP and keep their grubby hands off our records."