Board of elections investigates Forsyth County clerk of court campaign

by Jordan Green

Recent publicity about a political action committee whose poll workersused deceptive and illegal tactics to promote a slate of candidateshas caused the state Board of Elections to give renewedattention to a complaint against the campaign of Susan Frye, whowas elected Forsyth County clerk of superior court in 2010.

The complaint filed by Richard Bethune, treasurer for Republican candidateJeff Polston, languished for months after being forwarded to the state Board ofElections last July. Frye replaced fellow Democrat Nick Gordon after defeatinghim in the primary two years ago.

Bethune has accused Frye’s campaign, including treasurer Chris Church, offiling a “false and frivolous campaign report” for the period of July 1 throughOct. 25, 2010.

Bethune wrote that the report showed “$0 in receipts and $0 in expenditures,”adding that “Mr. Church and Ms. Frye obviously knew this report wasfalse as the 3rd quarter was when most of their money was raised and spentgoing into the November 2010 election.”

After the election, Church filed an amended report indicating that the campaignhad, in fact, raised $15,487 and spent $14,022.As treasurer, Church signed a standard certification statement on Oct. 25,2010 stating “that this report is complete, true and correct and that I have beentrained by the NC State Board of Elections.”

NC General Statute § 163-278.32 holds that any statement filed under therequirements of state law regulating contributions and expenditures in politicalcampaigns “shall be signed and certified as true and correct” and that “a certificationunder this article shall be treated as under oath, and any person making acertification under this article knowing the information to be untrue is guilty ofa Class I felony.”

Sheryll Harris, a campaign finance compliance specialist, confirmed lastweek that the state Board of Elections has received Bethune’s complaint.“We do have a complaint, and, yes, we are investigating,” she said. “We donot have an anticipated completion date.”

Harris said she could not comment on whether the matter would be referredto the five-member state board for action, or to the Forsyth County District Attorneyor NC Attorney General for prosecution.

Church and Frye did not return calls for this story.

A Winston-Salem campaign consultant, Church’s other past clients includeformer congressional candidate Dr. Bruce Peller, Forsyth County CommissionerEverette Witherspoon and Jerry Jordan, a former member of the countyboard of elections who ran unsuccessfully for district court judge this year.

Church is closely linked with the Forsyth Leadership Political Action Committee.The committee produced a yellow flier during the primary endorsingPeller for the 5th Congressional District, Witherspoon for a House seat, Jordanfor judge, Earline Parmon for NC Senate, Walter Dalton for governor andLinda Coleman for lieutenant governor.

Several people reported overhearing poll workers tell voters that those endorsedon the flier were “the Democratic candidates,” implying that those whowere not endorsed were not Democrats. The statement was false consideringthat Jordan, who was a candidate in a nonpartisan judicial race, is a registeredRepublican. On the second day of early voting, election staff caught poll workerstalking to voters inside a buffer zone where campaigning is prohibited andasked them to leave.

Church has said he was only working as a consultant for the committee, buta campaign finance report indicates that his consulting company spent $1,628on poll-worker salaries and $104 to print fliers as part of the committee’s effortson behalf of favored candidates.

Peller fired Church after learning about the tactics employed by the committee.

“Because of Chris Church’s involvement, I don’t have any doubt in mymind that this PAC is corrupt, and it’s up to individuals to do what they need todo,” Peller said in April. “I’m glad I’m out of it because Chris Church has beendishonest with me.”

Despite reported efforts by the committee to solicit contributions from atleast three candidates, only one came through. The Dalton campaign cut acheck for $2,000.

Bethune said the Journal’s coverage of Church’s involvement with theForsyth Leadership PAC got the attention of the state Board of Elections. Hesaid that Amy Strange, a campaign finance compliance specialist, told him ina phone conversation in early May that “my complaint was being escalatedbecause of what’s going on right now.”

The investigation into whether the Frye campaign filed a false report is onlyone instance in which candidates and political action committee associatedwith an alliance of mostly Democratic candidates in Forsyth County haveappeared to flout campaign finance law. The other violations appear to haveflown below or fallen off the state Board of Elections’ radar.

During the recent primary Peller said Church ran his consulting firm, 5Star Campaigns, out of his dental office. Peller said Jordan occasionally cameby the dental office to work with Church and that one Sunday he arrived tofind Witherspoon meeting with Church. Peller also said Church took him byParmon’s campaign headquarters on West 4th Street and left him waiting whilehe did some work on one of Parmon’s computers.

Parmon said in a prepared statement before the primary that her campaign“has had no direct involvement with the operational side” of the Forsyth LeadershipPAC, and dismissed as “rumors” the notion that she was tied to the committee.

An earlier alliance during the previous electioncycle featured some of the same playersand a similar use of fliers to promote a slateof candidates. Frye acknowledged in a 2011interview that she had been part of a “coordinatedeffort with Ms. Parmon” during the 2010election. Pamela Johnson, a former electionsemployee, told YES! Weekly that Parmon’scampaign manager asked her to perform somediscrete research for Frye while she was workingon the Parmon campaign. Johnson said she sawWitherspoon and another candidate, JimmieLee Bonham, at Parmon’s campaign office atthe Mutual Life Insurance Building during thecampaign. The Parmon, Frye, Witherspoon andBonham campaigns all made expenditures to alittle known, fly-by-night outfit with offices inthe same building that was variously known asCDC, CMC and CMC Marketing that providedcampaign services.

The Forsyth Leadership PAC is not the firstcommittee with a dubious purpose to promote aslate of candidates in Winston-Salem.

The Winston-Salem Black Political ActionCommittee was organized during the 2008 presidentialprimary. Its treasurer was Tanya Wiley,who is also a campaign consultant. Witherspoonwas listed as custodian of books information inthe committee’s statement of organization.

A consultant and publicist associated withthe firm WCP Communications, Wiley playeda prominent role in Parmon’s recent primary.Wiley publicized and handled media inquiriesfor a press conference in which Parmonlaunched her candidacy in tandem with an announcementby NC Rep. Larry Womble that hewould not seek the Senate seat and would retirefrom public office. Witherspoon also announcedhis candidacy at the event, and Wiley producedpress releases for both campaigns.

The Winston-Salem Black PAC drew sizeablecontributions from prominent figures: $2,500from then-gubernatorial candidate Bev Perdue,$1,000 from Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joinesand $500 from Ernest H. Pitt, chairman andCEO of the Winston-Salem Chronicle.

The committee’s organizational report wasfiled two days after the primary, and listed$4,008 in cash on hand. The committee failed tofile second-quarter or third-quarter plus reports,prompting an official notice of noncompliance toWiley from Kim Westbrook Strach, deputy directorfor campaign reporting at the state Boardof Elections, on Nov. 12, 2008.

Instead of catching up on its second-quarterand third-quarter plus reports the committeeskipped to the 2008 year-end semi-annual report,which the board of elections received in February2009. The report showed a balance of $164.Cash on hand at the end of the previous reportshould equal cash on hand at the beginning ofthe subsequent report. That $4,008 dwindled to$164 indicates that $3,844 remains missing orunaccounted. No mention of the discrepancy canbe found in correspondence from the board ofelections that is posted on the agency’s website.But Strach did attempt to get the committee tofile the missing reports, first warning of terminationof active status so the committee could notreceive or make contributions, then imposing a$500 fine.

Witherspoon and Wiley could not be reachedfor comment for this story.

Five hundred dollars is the maximum fine forreports affecting non-statewide elections. It isunclear how the board of elections determinedthat that the committee’s efforts affected only localelections; a $2,500 contribution from Perdueraises questions about whether the committeepromoted her candidacy for governor — astatewide office.

In addition to the almost $4,000 that disappeared,the committee raised and spent morethan $9,000, mainly in October and Novemberof 2008. A maximum contribution of $4,000came from the NC Democratic Party. Parmonand Womble respectively contributed $2,900and $1,355. Charles T. Hagan, the late father-inlawof US Senate candidate Kay Hagan, gave$1,000. A total of $3,254 was paid out to Wileyor WCP Communications for various services,including an e-mail campaign and marketing.Witherspoon collected a “volunteer stipend” of$621.

Still unable to obtain the missing reports fromWiley, Strach warned in a July 2009 letter thatstate law provided that the state Board of Elections“shall request the Attorney General to institutea civil action to recover the amount of theassessment” if the fine wasn’t paid in 30 days.

Strach said in a voice-mail message that herstaff is reviewing the committee’s reports andwill report the results as they come in.

Charles Winfree, a Republican member ofthe state Board of Elections from Greensboro,acknowledged that staff lacks the ability to auditevery report by every committee.

“When there are public questions about acommittee, then that moves that committee upon the priority list,” he said.

Listing Witherspoon as the treasurer, the committeefiled reports for the first and second quartersof 2010, which covered that year’s primaryelection. The committee reported zero receipts,zero expenditures and a zero balance. And yet aflier was handed out at polling places endorsingParmon, Frye, Witherspoon and Bonham, andinscribed with the notation “Paid for by Winston-Salem Black Political Committee” — an entitythat purportedly had no funds.