CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Ames Alexander and Michael Gordon/Charlotte Observer) - For the jury ruling on Greg Lindberg’s fate, the tale was in the tape.
Lindberg, a Durham billionaire who in recent years became one of North Carolina’s largest political donors, was convicted Thursday of using the promise of millions in campaign money to bribe North Carolina’s insurance commissioner Mike Causey.
The federal jury also found Lindberg associate John Gray guilty on two public corruption charges. Associate John Palermo was found not guilty.
Lindberg and Gray could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison for one of the charges and up to 10 additional years on the other.
The trial — which explored one of the largest political bribery scandals in North Carolina history — hinged on hours of secretly recorded conversations between Causey, Lindberg and his associates. Jurors also heard extensive testimony from Causey, who cooperated in the federal sting and wore a clandestine recording device to capture his conversations with the defendants.
Over the course of the eight-day trial inside Charlotte’s century-old federal courthouse, prosecutors contended there was abundant evidence to show what Lindberg and his associates wanted for their money: They wanted Causey to reassign the senior regulator who oversaw one of Lindberg’s companies.
The recordings played for the jury showed that Lindberg and his associates repeatedly urged Causey to move Jackie Obusek, the deputy N.C. insurance commissioner responsible for regulating Lindberg’s company. They contended Obusek was unjustly hurting the reputation of Lindberg’s companies and hampering their ability to make investments and acquisitions in other states.
The recordings also revealed that the defendants promised Causey that they would send him millions in campaign contributions, initially through an independent expenditure committee and later through the North Carolina Republican Party.
Ultimately, the Republican Party did transfer $250,000 to Causey’s campaign.
Defense lawyers argued that Lindberg and his co-defendants were innocent victims of a politician who used his power to “try to entrap and ensnare them.”
Those lawyers also contended that Causey had a strong motivation for entrapping Lindberg: The insurance company magnate was the largest financial supporter of Causey’s chief political opponent — former insurance commissioner Wayne Goodwin, who Causey narrowly defeated in the 2016 election.
Lindberg donated at least $9,500 to Goodwin during the 2016 race, according to state records.
Lindberg and his associates put on a costly defense. They hired about a dozen lawyers and, according to the judge in the case, even employed a “ghost jury.” Ghost jurors, also known as “shadow jurors,” are typically paid to observe a trial and report their reactions to lawyers in a case.
Lindberg in recent years became one of North Carolina’s largest political donors. He owns Global Bankers Insurance Group, a managing company for several insurance and reinsurance companies.
Lindberg, Gray and Palermo, along with then-GOP Chairman Robin Hayes, were indicted last spring on charges that they attempted to funnel $2 million in bribe money to Causey’s reelection campaign.
Hayes, a former congressman who later became the state GOP chair, pleaded guilty in October to lying to federal investigators and faces up to six months in prison. He is expected to be sentenced soon.
HOW THE SCHEME UNFOLDED
Causey, a Republican who was elected in 2016, said he grew concerned about Lindberg and his associates in 2017 when the insurance department was conducting a financial examination of one of Lindberg’s companies.
Lindberg donated $10,000 to Causey’s reelection campaign in early 2017 — during the same week insurance department officials were scheduled to meet with leaders of one of Lindberg’s companies. Causey said he directed his campaign finance director to return the money.
Lindberg and his associates met with Causey in November of that year and asked him to put in a good word for them with the commissioner of insurance in Michigan, where they wanted to acquire another company.
Soon afterward, Gray told Causey that Lindberg had donated $500,000 to the state Republican Party — and that $110,000 of that money would be coming to Causey’s reelection campaign, the commissioner testified early in the trial.
“It seemed like they wanted to reward me for doing that (putting in a good word with the Michigan insurance commissioner),” Causey told the jury.
Causey later brought his concerns to federal authorities and began cooperating with their investigation into Lindberg and his associates.