Cabarrus Sen. Hartsell investigated: May have misspent campaign money

Published 12:01 am Thursday, June 18, 2015

By Emery P. Dalesio

Associated Press

RALEIGH (AP) — North Carolina elections officials decided Wednesday to send state prosecutors the findings of their two-year investigation into a powerful state senator’s use of campaign contributions from political supporters on personal expenses from speeding tickets to shoe repairs.

The State Board of Elections on Wednesday voted unanimously to refer the 700 pages of investigative findings involving spending by state Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, to state and federal prosecutors. The board also agreed it would decide whether to fine the 24-year Senate veteran by the end of the year.

The elections board only had to determine there was reason to believe there may have been a violation, said elections board chairman Joshua Howard, one of three Republicans on the five-member board. Prosecutors would have to weigh the evidence to a higher standard before any potential criminal charges.

The investigation, whose results were revealed for the first time Wednesday, portrayed Hartsell as a lawyer who operated with a professional duty to keep client funds separate from his own, yet who allowed himself a generous definition of reimbursable expenses related to campaigning or serving in the Legislature.

During the more than 18 hours Hartsell spent describing his campaign accounting to elections board investigators, he defended charging his campaign for haircuts because the senator claimed if he hadn’t entered public life he’d grow his hair long like a hippie, Howard said.

Hartsell owned two antique Studebaker autos and three other cars and claimed gas and maintenance costs for all of them against his campaign account because he might drive any of them to Raleigh, state elections director Kim Strach said. The senator also argued funds from campaign contributors should pay the cost of renewing his driver’s license because he may have gone without it except for the need to drive to the state capital.

Howard and board member Joshua Malcolm, a Democrat, said they doubted Hartsell mixed up accounts through bad bookkeeping since they came at a time the senator carried heavy debts on nearly a dozen credit cards.

“I think we see a pattern here of opaque and circuitous disclosures,” Howard said. “It bothers me that those go on at a time when the official seems to have generated significant personal debt and also is spending campaign money on what appears to be purely personal purposes.”

Between 2000 and 2012, Hartsell’s campaign fund paid the senator $345,320. How much of that was legitimate and how much crossed the line isn’t fully clear, Strach said. Elections board investigators estimated that the senator collected nearly $110,000 in overpayments between 2009-2014, the report said.

Hartsell didn’t have a primary or general election opponent in 2012.

Hartsell didn’t attend the elections board hearing, which came as the Senate debated its proposed state budget. He said he was disappointed with the board’s decision but had no further comment. He also declined comment on the state Democratic Party’s recommendation that he resign.

Hartsell joined the Senate in 1991. He has leadership roles on a Senate judiciary committee and the tax-writing committee. He has served as chairman of the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Hartsell’s campaign accounts had never been audited in his 24-year legislative career because he filed his required reports on paper rather than electronically and the elections board lacked sufficient staff, Strach said. That changed after a 2013 article in the News & Observer of Raleigh raised questions about credit card payments Hartsell made using campaign funds.