‘Clerical error:’ Questionable spending fills NC lieutenant governor’s campaign reports

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s campaign report does not explain why $186 worth of medical bills were campaign-related.

Or why he bought “campaign clothes and accessories” for $2,840 with the majority being spent at a sporting goods store.

It doesn’t explain why his wife needed to be reimbursed $4,500 for campaign clothing or how and where she spent the money.

And it says he withdrew $2,400 in cash with no explanation.

The News & Observer asked Bob Hall, a campaign finance watchdog, for his expertise on Robinson’s campaign finance reports.

Hall reviewed the reports and uncovered even more omissions. Some he said violate state law and others he said at least need further explanation from Robinson’s team.

Because of that, Hall requested in a formal complaint Feb. 15 that the North Carolina State Board of Elections investigate Robinson’s reports.

State elections staff, by law, can not comment on whether a person’s campaign finance reports are under investigation. It’s unclear whether the board has taken up Hall’s call for action.

“We are aware of clerical errors related to our campaign finance reports,” Conrad Pogorzelski, Robinson’s political consultant, said in an email to The News & Observer. “This includes a $20 cash withdrawal that was reported as a $2,400 withdrawal, the $2,000 spent at Lake Outfitters for campaign merchandise such as t-shirts and hats, and other such errors categorized or improperly reported.

“We are transitioning to new staff, and our team is in the process of working with the NCSBE to fix any and all mistakes, and to amend our reports to be accurate and up to date.”

Robinson, a Republican, won a crowded primary election in 2020 and then defeated a Democratic state legislator to become North Carolina’s first Black lieutenant governor.

Unexplained campaign expenses

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said candidates need to give their constituents confidence that contributions are being used appropriately.

In the past, farmers or tech employees have been able to expense their clothing because their regular job doesn’t require them to dress up.

From Robinson’s report, Phillips said it is unclear why Robinson needed clothing for his campaign from Lake Gaston Outfitters, a store that specializes in hiking, canoeing and cycling gear.

Phillips said he also hasn’t seen someone buy their wife clothing before.

“I think it’s questionable,” Phillips said. “Maybe his wife is someone who is with him and campaigning and there could be a case for additional expenditures … but that needs an explanation.”

And then there are the medical bills.

“I have seen some leeway where people buy clothes or even get a haircut,” Phillips said. “But I’ve never seen a doctor’s bill being used or paid for by a campaign contribution and listed in a campaign finance report.”

Phillips said there may be a good answer about how a medical procedure is derived from something campaign-related but the campaign did not yet provide that explanation.

“I’ll kind of go back to say it’s incumbent on the candidate to be above board and then think about it in terms of, how will this look to the public? How will they perceive it?” Phillips said.

What is allowed?

Under state law a candidate can not take out a cash payment over $50 without a detailed description explaining how the funds were used.

Hall also noted a $160 expense at the State Employees Credit Union in Kinston, calling that suspicious and in need of further explanation, in an email to the N&O.

“It looks like a cash withdrawal or deposit into someone’s account,” he said.

North Carolina law allows campaign funds to be spent solely for nine purposes. The first two include expenses resulting from the campaign by the candidate or the candidate’s campaign committee, and expenses resulting from holding a public office.

Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor, labeled those first two rules as so broad that “a person could drive a Mack truck through them.”

“A candidate could make a legitimate case for their own clothing, of course, but if a spouse is making campaign appearances, then there’s certainly a case to be made that those could count as well,” Cooper said.

In broad terms, Pat Gannon, spokesman for the NC State Board of Elections, discussed how a candidate may use contributions.

“The general rule for determining whether an expenditure is permitted is to ask whether the expenditure would have been made absent the campaign for public office or the holding of public office,” Gannon said. “If the answer is ‘yes’ to that question, the expenditure should not be made.”

The board offers candidates a 142-page manual on campaign finance.

The elections director also provides opinions to candidates or public officials seeking further guidance on how they can spend their campaign money. Those opinions are published to the board’s website.

Robinson’s money

Problems with Robinson’s campaign finance report didn’t end with his expenditures.

After speaking with The N&O, Hall took a deeper dive and found what he said are problems with his campaign contributions.

Hall said in his complaint some of the reports failed to provide adequate information about the sources of the money. He called it “a disturbing pattern of omission that violates state law and prevents the public from having important information about the campaign’s financial support.”

Among them:

  • Robinson collected 1,400 contributions of $50 or more that did not include the occupations of the donors, Hall said.
  • Two donations came from “unknown” donors. One collected on July 7 was for $1,410. The other collected on Aug. 28 was for $100.
  • At least 15 donors did not have an address listed.
  • He also reported to the board that two federal political action committees donated $5,400. Neither PAC has an address listed or are authorized in North Carolina to make a donation, Hall wrote. He found three others with one of those two problems.

Hall said the lack of address information could raise questions about whether the donations were legal and that anonymous donations violate state law.

“This disturbing pattern of omission, particularly from so many large donors apparently violates (state law) and clearly prevents the public from having important information about the candidates financial support,” Hall wrote to the election’s board.

In 2020, state law prohibited a candidate from collecting more than $5,400 from an individual or PAC during a primary or general election.

Robinson’s campaign reported that he did so at least three times between July and September with a man and a woman each donating $10,800 and another woman donating $6,400.

“I do not see any refunds to any of these individuals on the committee’s expenditures report,” Hall wrote to the board. He suggested that at the least Robinson’s campaign should pay money that exceeds the contribution allowance to a civil penalty and forfeiture fund.

Audit ongoing

Gannon said Robinson’s campaign finance reports are being audited, but that the audit remains unfinished.

Under state law, audits happen routinely, but may also be initiated because of an investigation, at the closure of a committee or if a candidate dies.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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