Complaint against outside money group's mailers in house GOP primary

Secret money in local races

ALBEMARLE, NC (WBTV) - A complaint was filed Sunday against an independent expenditure group that has invested roughly $15,000 to defeat incumbent Representative Justin Burr (R-Stanly).

Conservative Future Fund has sent a series of mailers attacking Burr and praising his primary opponent, Lane Burris.

By law, Burris is not allowed to coordinate with Conservative Future Fund and there is no evidence that he has done so.

The first mailer sent by the outside group hit mailboxes in late February, before the group had filed any paperwork with the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Conservative Future Fund ultimately filed paperwork with NCSBE within a week but one state lawmaker, who filed the complaint against the group, said its organizers purposely acted to conceal who was behind the organization.

"The Conservative Future Fund (CFF) conspired to conceal it's donors until after the settled primary by delaying the required filings even though electioneering activities were being performed," wrote Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford) in his complaint.

Additionally, Hager's complaint accused the organization of violating the law.

"CFF mailers arrived in households in NC House District 67 on or prior to the 29th of February. Activities to raise funds, design mailers, orchestrate mailing, printing mailers and paying the cost of the mailers would have logically taken place well before February the 29th," the complaint said. "Although funds were raised and invoices were paid under the auspices of a legal 527 in NC, CFF'S origination date was not until March 4, 2016."

North Carolina law requires independent expenditure groups like Conservative Future Fund to file disclosure reports within ten days of electioneering communication.

An attorney for Conservative Future Fund, Roger Knight, did not respond to an email seeking comment in response to Hager's complaint but had previously defended the group's sending mail pieces before filing organizational paperwork with the state.

"Conservative Future Fund registered in February as a Section 527 organization with the IRS and was at that point legally authorized to operate as an entity," Knight wrote. "Although there is no Federal or State legal requirement to do so, and its right to operate as a 527 organization is not dependent on its corporate status, it was incorporated in North Carolina, also in February."

Experts who track outside spending in political elections say they have seen an influx of groups like the Conservative Future Fund.

"As regulations have gotten weaker and enforcement has gotten weaker, more and more groups set up in new and different ways to try to influence the political process while making it as hard as possible to try and figure out who they are and what they want," said Noah Bookbinder with the non-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "People and companies and industries that are power and have money and want to influence the process very much want to have a say in who is elected but often would rather that voters and the public not know who they are and who's giving the money and who's trying to influence the process."

A report filed by Conservative Future Fund shows the group began sending mail pieces against Burr before it took in any money. The first mail piece was sent at the end of February but the first donation isn't recorded as having been made until March 2, 2016. That money came from another private organization, NC Fund for a Conservative Future, records show.

Since then, the group has received two other donations: $15,000 from Charlotte energy mogul Jay Faison and $25,000 from PITA Raleigh, LLC, a business tied to Salisbury attorney Bill Graham that was dissolved by the North Carolina Secretary of State's office in February, before the company made its reported contribution to Conservative Future Fund.

A survey of other state house Republican primaries shows outside groups have spent money to be a factor across the state.

In Cabarrus County, a group called Cabarrus Jobs Now has spent money attacking incumbent Representative Larry Pittman (R-Cabarrus). In Wake County, a group called StopNelsonDollar.Com has spent money to oppose Representative Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), the chief architect of the house's budget.

Representative David Lewis (R-Harnett) has also faced an onslaught of attacks from a conservative group, Liberty Torch PAC, in his primary. Lewis and Dollar  have benefited from the support of several special interest groups, too.

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