Citizen Green: Our little dalliance with corruption

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Jordan Greenby Jordan Green

The rapid rise and recent calamitous fall of Paul Foley, a Republican lawyer who landed a seat on the state Board of Elections while making partner at the Winston-Salem office of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, illustrates the slippery slope of corruption in state politics.

North Carolina politicians excel at hardball power politics and are usually willing to stoop to the use of race as a lever of advantage, as the continuing federal voting-rights trial in Winston-Salem has revealed. Typically our state’s brand of corruption is about acquiring and maintaining power in service of a sincere and passionately held political conviction, as opposed to the kind of corruption geared towards accumulating material spoils. Thankfully, examples of the latter appear to be isolated rather than pervasive. Or at least, I would like to think so.

Patrick Cannon, who is serving a 44-month federal prison sentence for accepting bribes as mayor of Charlotte comes to mind. Or Yadkin County Sheriff Mike Cain, who diverted county funds into a secret fund to pay for Harley-Davidson motorcycles for himself and two deputies.

I’d like to think that the ethical standard of North Carolina politics is at least a notch or two above the slimy bowels of Louisiana, New Mexico and Kentucky. In my home state, former University of Kentucky star basketball player Ritchie Farmer used his position as agriculture commissioner (clever, right?) to create high-paying jobs for friends, whose duties primarily consisted of performing personal tasks for their boss; using state funds to buy rifles, knives and cigars; and shaking down an auto dealership for all-terrain vehicles in exchange for a state grant to stage an ATV course. Amazingly, following his guilty plea in late 2013, Farmer received a sentence of only 27 months in a minimum-security prison near his home in southeastern Kentucky.

Oh right, there’s also the matter of North Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, who served three years in federal prison for charges related to various corruptions, including steering a contract to a carnival operator after receiving an envelope stuffed full of cash.

We saw a glimpse of the self-seeking, arrogant will for power and unscrupulous maneuvering that seems endemic in the intersection between human nature and political power in the saga of Paul Foley saga, who resigned from the state Board of Elections last week.

The 37-year-old Foley, who seems to have been a young man in a hurry, landed a job at Kilpatrick Stockton in Winston-Salem in 2011 and then quickly insinuated himself into Republican politics as the party continued its ascendance through the 2012 election. Foley’s efforts on behalf of the party were soon rewarded when Robin Hayes, then the chairman of the state Republican Party, supplied Foley’s name to newly elected Gov. Pat McCrory for consideration as an appointee to the state Board of Elections, according to a report in this Sunday’s issue of the News & Observer.

At the time of Foley’s appointment to the state Board of Elections, Kilpatrick Stockton had been hired by Oklahoma video sweepstakes executive Chase Burns to help challenge the statewide ban on the games. Fortuitously perhaps, the state Board of Elections was gearing up an investigation into Burns’ campaign contributions to McCrory and other candidates just as Foley was coming on.

In September 2014, according to the News & Observer, elections investigators discovered that Burns and his company had paid Kilpatrick Stockton $1.3 million in legal fees. The report goes on to say that Foley officially recused himself from the sweepstakes investigation. Yet he continued to badger elections staff for information.

As the News & Observer story details, “[Foley] immediately pressed Elections Director Kim Strach for details of where the matter stood, although Strach repeatedly told him she couldn’t discuss it with him, according to documents from the internal probe. He wanted to know what information about his law firm would be in the report of the sweepstakes investigation report. He said he needed to see the sweepstakes investigation report so he could help Kilpatrick Stockton prepare a response.”

Meanwhile, emails obtained by the Associated Press reveal that Foley also worked behind the scenes with Republican officials in Watauga County on a controversial scheme to remove an early voting site at Appalachian State University that was popular with Democratic voters. Although it’s plainly a conflict of interest for a member of the state Board of Elections, which resolves disputes arising from county election boards, it’s sadly consistent with North Carolina’s political culture for Foley to jump in the fray.

When Foley resigned from the board under pressure from Gov. McCrory last week, he didn’t say whether it was because he had tried to corrupt the process for the benefit of his employer or if it was because he had tried to corrupt the process for the benefit of his party.

Prior to his resignation, Foley had said that he did nothing wrong, and told a Winston-Salem Journal reporter that the only thing that had changed was that an “AP reporter called a close family member of mine about me while her father was on [his] deathbed.”

Just like the guys who took free motorcycles and ATVs, there’s an almost childlike innocence about a man who blithely carries on as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to leverage a public appointment to secure private and partisan advantage.