Will N.C. officials return shady pro-Confederate PAC contributions?

North Carolina state Rep. Larry Pittman (at center looking toward the camera) was photographed after attending a May 2019 meeting with the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Pittman was among the elected state officials who took contributions from an SCV-connected PAC that's been accused of breaking campaign finance laws. (Photo by Anthony Crider via Flickr.) 

Facing South recently reported on the North Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans' (NC SCV) organizing of a political action committee in late 2015. The move came just months after the massacre of nine Black people by a Confederate sympathizer in a Charleston, South Carolina, church sparked growing sentiment against public displays of Confederate symbols, to which North Carolina's Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature responded by passing a law that forbids the removal of public monuments to the Confederacy. 

The North Carolina Heritage PAC was officially established in January 2016, according to paperwork on file with the state elections board. Since then, the PAC has contributed to 16 political campaigns in the state. All of those who received money from the PAC are conservative Republicans, and some are high-ranking officials including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, House Speaker Tim Moore, and Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. 

In all, the North Carolina Heritage PAC has donated over $22,000 to political campaigns to date. But according to elections watchdog Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy North Carolina, these contributions may have been made illegally.

On Jan. 22, Hall submitted a complaint to the state elections board requesting a comprehensive investigation and appropriate enforcement action regarding allegedly illegal activity by the N.C. Heritage PAC, NC SCV, and individual leaders and affiliated organizations of NC SCV involved in financing the PAC. Hall's complaint was based on his own research as well as reporting by The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the NC SCV has been embroiled in the controversy over the school's Confederate monument, which was pulled down by anti-racist protesters in 2018.

Hall says that NC SCV leaders mistakenly believed their organization — a 501c3 nonprofit that under law cannot engage in political activity — could create and financially support a PAC. He interviewed NC SCV leaders who told him they relied on legal advice that a provision of North Carolina law allowed it.

"But that advice is wrong," his complaint states. It continues:

I am told that the advice about NCGS 163-278.19(f), no doubt well intended, came from a retired state judge. No one gave me a name, but I note that retired Superior Court Judge Samuel T. Currin is one of the first donors to the NC Heritage PAC, donating $50 on Feb. 24, 2016 and $50 on Feb. 25, 2016. Currin is also a former US Attorney and former NC Republican Party chair. As US Attorney during the intense Jesse Helms vs. Jim Hunt 1984 election, Currin's office sent incorrect warnings to local election officials asserting, for example, that payments to people who drive voters to the polls are illegal (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1986/10/02/second-time-around-for-a-judgeship/227fa78e-fca0-4314-b99c-cea302b0b8a7/). Currin was sent to federal prison in 2007 on charges related to tax fraud and money laundering (https://oklahoman.com/article/3119204/former-judge-prosecutor-sentenced-in-nc).

Hall also noted that a staff auditor at the elections board, during a routine review in 2017, asked the Heritage PAC treasurer if NC SCV met the provisions of the law allowing certain nonprofits to make political contributions. The auditor simply accepted NC SCV Commander R. Kevin Stone's assurances that the contributions were permissible.

The complaint further alleges that NC SCV leaders "deliberately engaged in illegal activities to grow and sustain the NC Heritage PAC," based on reporting by The Daily Tar Heel and Hall's own research. These activities include multiple leaders soliciting cash and other contributions during NC SCV local and state meetings as well as some leaders asking NC SCV members to put their names on phony PAC donations as though the money was their own, which violates state campaign finance laws.

Should the state election board verify Hall's charges, he wants it to terminate the NC Heritage PAC and impose penalties against NC SCV leaders who broke the law. He is also calling on candidates who received funds from the Heritage PAC to return the same amount to the state elections board.

Facing South reached out to the 13 elected officials who received donations from the PAC to find out if they intend to return the money. We heard back from just one — state Rep. Larry Pittman, who represents Cabarrus and Rowan counties. The co-sponsor of a bill that would have removed the ban on secession from the state constitution, Pittman drew widespread attention in 2017 when he stated that the Civil War was "unnecessary and unconstitutional" and compared Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler. His campaign has received $2,000 from the PAC to date.

"I have asked [the State Board of Elections] and SCV about this," he wrote in an email. "I have not yet received word that there is actually anything wrong with the contribution. If and when it is verified to me that this was an inappropriate contribution, I will do whatever SBOE deems necessary. Until then, a mere allegation is not enough to justify doing anything about it."