Rucho returns campaign cash after On Your Side investigation - | WBTV Charlotte

Rucho returns campaign cash after On Your Side investigation

State Senator Bob Rucho (Source: NC General Assembly) State Senator Bob Rucho (Source: NC General Assembly)
RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) -

State Senator Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg) returned $1,000 of a campaign contribution from Piedmont Natural Gas' PAC after an On Your Side investigation found the entity had donated more money to Rucho during the 2014 primary than allowed by law.

Our investigation uncovered the overage as part of a review of all 43 Charlotte-area lawmakers; a group that includes both Republicans and Democrats.

The review turned up five legislative campaign committees that reported accepting contributions from individual donors or political action committees during the 2014 primary or general election.

State law allowed campaigns to accept up to $5,000 from individuals and PACs per election. The primary election and general election are considered to be separate. 

The contribution limit is increased each cycle to adjust for inflation. In 2016, the limit is expected to be roughly $5,100.

Some problems resolved by campaigns

Of the five lawmakers singled out in our review of campaign finance reports, two campaigns identified the contribution overages themselves and either refunded or forfeited the overage in accordance with state law.

The campaign committee for State Senator Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston) accepted a total of $8,000 from the Gaston Anesthesia Associates PAC during the 2014 primary.

Records provided by the North Carolina State Board of Elections show Harrington's treasurer identified the overage and reported it to the NCSBE. A spokesman for the NCSBE said the campaign forfeited the overage amount—$3,000—as directed.

A second campaign, that of Senator Andy Wells (R-Catawba) accepted a total of $6,000 from businessman Bob Luddy and refunded the $1,000 overage amount after identifying the overage several months later.

State law requires candidate committees to identify and reimburse contribution overages within seven days or that amount must be forfeited but a spokesman for the NCSBE said it works with campaigns who refund the overage outside of that date range.

Two other area lawmakers reported contributions over the legal limit but a review of internal records show the report was due to an accounting mistake and not a contribution over the limit.

Freshman State Representative John Bradford (R-Mecklenburg) said his campaign's treasurer spotted a reporting error during a regular audit.

Bradford's campaign reported receiving two $5,000 contributions from the campaign of another house member but, in reality, the campaign only received one $5,000 contribution.

"When he caught it, all we did was file an amended report, if you will, to correct the deposit basis. So we found it and we corrected it," Bradford explained.

Bradford said reporting errors are not uncommon as committees and campaign treasurers—often volunteers—try to keep up with checks coming in from multiple sources.

"In my case, I think I had over 300, maybe 350 checks coming in, and you’re trying to keep a Google spreadsheet so you keep track of them and you’re just bound to make a mistake somewhere in that much data," he said.

On Your Side Investigates prompts changes

State Senator Jeff Tarte (R-Mecklenburg) said his campaign would amend its reports following questions from On Your Side Investigates.

Tarte's campaign reported receiving two contributions of $3,000 each from Carolinas Healthcare System Employee Federal PAC during the 2014 general election. Tarte provided records showing one of the checks was actually received during the 2014 primary and the other during the general election, which is permissible under the law.

Senator Rucho wrote a check for $1,000 to the Piedmont Natural Gas PAC following questions from On Your Side Investigates.

Our review found Rucho's campaign accepted a total of $6,000 from the PAC during the 2014 primary election.

"Thanks for picking up the accounting oversight, the attached document shows the issue has been resolved," Rucho wrote in an email in response to our questions.

A spokesman for Piedmont Natural Gas said the over-the-limits contribution was inadvertent.

"Senator Rucho’s inquiry sparked an immediate review by Piedmont, which was completed over the weekend and which ultimately determined that we had, in fact, made an excess contribution in the amount of $1,000 to his 2014 primary election campaign," spokesman David Trusty said.

Trusty said the PAC will file an amended report with the NCSBE reflecting the overage and Rucho's reimbursement.

“Piedmont views this error with much regret and we have taken this as an opportunity to review our processes and procedures to ensure such errors do not occur in the future and that they continue to reflect our core values around integrity and excellence," Trusty said.

Audit backlog means mistakes go unnoticed

A spokesman for the state board of elections said mistakes like the ones uncovered by On Your Side Investigates often go unnoticed by board auditors in a timely fashion because of the massive backlog of reports waiting to be audited.

Under the law, the NCSBE is supposed to review every report filed within four days and audit the report within four months.

"That is currently not the timetable we have going," board spokesman Josh Lawson said.

"The State Board of Elections has about 70 employees, six of which are auditors," Lawson explained. "Out of that group, they're able to collectively pull about 6,000 report audits a year. The problem is, we get about 8,000-10,000 reports filed with our office on even number of years."

Lawson said the board expects the backlog to be cleared once campaigns are required to file all reports electronically starting in 2017. Right now, campaigns have the option to file their reports online or by mailing a paper report.

A recent survey conducted by the Center for Public Integrity gave North Carolina low marks for its oversight of campaign finances.

"In fact, the board is about four years behind in its audits with some audits from 2010 not yet completed, though some more recent audits have been completed in major races," the organization wrote.

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