Berger campaign forfeiture reduced after waiting one year to respond to audit

RALEIGH, NC (WBTV) - The campaign of one of North Carolina's most powerful elected officials waited a year to respond to a campaign finance audit and paid a reduced fine as a result.

Documents obtained by WBTV show the campaign of North Carolina Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) failed to respond to an audit of the campaign's financial statements.

Auditors at the North Carolina State Board of Elections & Ethics Enforcement began an audit of Berger's campaign finances in November 2015, documents show.

That audit wasn't concluded until June of this year when the campaign provided detailed responses to an auditor's findings and forfeited $5,500 in contributions that the campaign should not have accepted.

State law prohibits campaign from taking contributions from corporations, political action committees not registered in the state or from donors that have already given the maximum amount of money allowed under the law.

Documents released by the NCSBE show a board auditor originally found $19,700 worth of illegal contributions to the campaign.

The board auditor sent an email to the campaign's treasurer outlining her findings on April 5, 2016. That email, records show, did not receive a response.

Documents: Read emails between NCSBE auditor and Berger campaign

The next communication between the board and Berger's campaign came 11 months later, in March 2017, when the board auditor emailed the campaign treasurer a second time to say the rules regarding audits and forfeitures had changed in the time since the original assessment.

The change narrowed the scope of time NCSBE auditors could audit.

As a result of the rule change, Berger's campaign would now only have to forfeit $5,500 instead of the original $19,700 amount.

Berger's campaign treasurer waited another month before responding to the follow-up email sent by the board auditor in March 2017.

"Thanks for the update and the information," Berger's campaign treasurer wrote the NCSBE auditor. "I hope to be able to work on all of this after April 18th. As a CPA during tax season, I have been so busy and haven't had a chance to meet with the people that can help with some of this as well as dig out the old records. My goal will be mid-May."

A letter included with an NCSBE audit memo shows at attorney retained by Berger's campaign provided a detailed response to the board's audit findings in mid-June 2017. Records posted by the NCSBE show the campaign paid a $5,500 forfeiture three days after submitting its detailed response to the audit findings.

A spokesman for the NCSBE could not explain why auditors at the board waited nearly a year to follow-up with a campaign that had not responded to the findings of an audit.

"I think there are a number of factors that probably played into it," NCSBE spokesman Patrick Gannon said. "At the time that audit was started, we were very short staffed in the campaign finance division. I think we had two auditors at the time."

But Gannon acknowledged the Berger campaign paid a significantly reduced forfeiture as a result of waiting a year to respond to the audit, noting it is not standard practice for the NCSBE auditors to wait so long to follow up with campaigns.

"I can't get into particulars on exactly why that happened in this case but it did," Gannon said.

A spokesman for Berger's campaign declined to make the senator available for an on-camera interview but sent the following statement in an email:

While simultaneously resolving audits for multiple candidates, members of our team carefully and meticulously reviewed more than $7 million dollars and six years' worth of campaign finance activity for the Phil Berger Committee. We complied fully – with the State Board of Elections and the law – and provided a detailed and thorough response. Issues were raised regarding less than one percent of all the campaign's receipts and expenditures, and we followed NCSBE's direction for remedying those matters. We're glad this has been resolved and will continue to comply with requests the board makes of our campaign.

The campaign's spokesman did not provide a specific explanation as to why its treasurer failed to respond to the NCSBE auditor for an entire year.

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