Featured photo: Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson (photo by Jwaugh3, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
This story was originally published by Carolina Public Press, story by Mehr Sher
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, a Republican candidate in the 2024 primary for governor, remains under a N.C. State Board of Elections investigation into allegations of more than $500,000 of campaign finance violations in 2020, according to Bob Hall, the former executive director of Democracy NC and a campaign finance watchdog.
Hall asked Robinson in person on Tuesday to address the issue after a Council of State meeting, but Robinson did not respond to his questions. Hall also sent an open letter to the lieutenant governor on Monday urging him to give an explanation to voters “before the primary, not after the November election.”
Carolina Public Press reached out to the State Board of Elections, but staff could not confirm whether the elections investigation was ongoing or close to reaching its conclusion, because “all campaign finance complaints and investigations in North Carolina are confidential” by law. CPP also called and emailed Robinson’s office for comment, but did not receive a response.
“I’m surprised that the investigation has gone on this long and hasn’t got much attention from the public,” Hall said. “This is campaign finance reporting the use of money that will illustrate his integrity and accountability to the law and to the public.”
“It’s a lot of money and it involves basically cheating and lying on reports and a possible misuse of campaign money, including having money from the campaign being used to pay off his personal loans,” Hall said, when asked why the public should pay attention to the Board of Elections investigation.
Three years into Board of Elections investigation
In Feb. 2021, Hall submitted his complaint citing “apparent violations of North Carolina’s finance laws” to the board. According to him, the investigation has been ongoing for three years. Whether it will conclude before elections remains unclear, Hall said.
Several prominent political watchers, including Hall, are raising questions about the duration of the Board of Elections investigation into Robinson’s campaign finance reporting.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, said he wasn’t surprised that the investigation has been taking a long time.
“But maybe it’s starting to reach a point of length calling into question what’s going on with the investigation,” he said. But, “these are allegations and we’ll have to wait and see how many of them are proven,” he added.
“The State Board of Elections is hard pressed with their own staffing to be able to handle all the campaign finance reports that come in, but this is a high-profile candidate in a high-profile race — and it has been three years,” said Bob Phillips, a lobbyist and the executive director of Common Cause NC, a liberal-leaning, Raleigh-based nonprofit.
“It does seem like an unusually long time and does invite questions of whether it’s a bigger investigation than we realize.”
“Many citizens in a purple state like North Carolina have got so used to high cost campaigns that there’s not a shock value as much anymore,” Phillips said of the lack of attention to the allegations of Robinson’s campaign finance violations. He described it as almost a “so what” attitude from the public.
Campaign finance allegations
Upon review of Robinson’s 2020 campaign expenses, Hall said he found “illegal cash donations; contributions in illegal amounts and from illegal donors; illegal cash withdrawals; illegal credit card charges and illegal expenses; illegal disclosure of financial transactions,” all of which he described in detail in his original complaint to the Board.
Small campaign finance violations are normal, according to Christopher Cooper, a professor of political science and public affairs at Western Carolina University.
But “it is not normal to have accusations of half a million dollars worth of violations, especially for somebody (Robinson) who has declared bankruptcy multiple times and has had questions about his finances raised in the past,” he said.
Robinson has declared bankruptcy at least four times in the past.
IRS reporting allegations
Don Carrington, the retired executive editor of Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative-leaning nonprofit think tank, John Locke Foundation, said he sees similarities between Hall’s findings and his own.
Carrington has been investigating the Robinson family business, Balanced Nutrition. Carrington has also provided research to a right-leaning blog, The Daily Haymaker, raising questions about “misleading IRS filings.”
“If there’s sloppiness in your campaign, it indicates you may be headed for sloppiness in public money,” Carrington said of Bob Hall’s findings. “We expect more from someone running for governor.”
Robinson is a candidate in the upcoming Republican primary for governor and has led in several polls.
Balanced Nutrition is a nonprofit and a sponsoring organization of the federal Child and Adult Food Program. Its stated mission is to reimburse child care facilities for providing nutritious meals to low-income children. Yolanda Hill, Robinson’s wife, runs Balanced Nutrition. She is an accountant with a master’s degree in accounting.
Robinson’s IRS filings omitted things that are supposed to be disclosed, such as family members working for the nonprofit, and discrepancies in the numbers reported in the planning budget with the Department of Health and Human Services and what’s reported to the IRS, Carrington said.
CPP emailed Hill to comment on Carrington’s findings, but did not receive a response.
The future of Robinson’s candidacy
If the elections investigation concludes and it proceeds into a hearing, Robinson’s candidacy for governor of the state may not be affected, according to Cooper.
“It is unlikely to derail his candidacy,” he said. “Mark Robinson is and will almost certainly remain the frontrunner for the Republican party.” Cooper doesn’t see that changing in the process, no matter what happens.
Most North Carolinian voters who support Robinson are not likely to change their minds based on this issue, according to Cooper, and this is similar to what’s taking place on a national level when it comes to cases against Donald Trump and his candidacy for president.
“These allegations are not new and have been around since 2021,” he said. “These are not gamechangers electorally.”
Cooper said it’s possible that, if Robinson is elected governor of North Carolina, he would remain governor regardless of how credible the accusations are.
Confidentiality of elections investigation
The law governing elections investigations contains a confidentiality provision that “does not prevent (a complainant) from publishing or otherwise disclosing the complaint, substance of the complainant, the response, or any substance of the response to members of the media or the public,” according to the Board’s Campaign Finance Complaint Policy.
This would mean that Hall, the complainant in this case, is free to talk with the news media about his complaint at the same time that the Board of Elections if prohibited from doing so.
While the provision prevents the public from finding out details about any ongoing Board of Elections investigation being conducted, after an investigation has concluded and if the Board proceeds to a hearing, documents or materials are made public, according to the Board’s Campaign Finance Complaint Policy.
“After an investigation has concluded, penalty assessments, State Board orders, and any documents or materials admitted into evidence at a State Board hearing shall be made public, unless otherwise exempted under North Carolina law,” the policy states.
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