By | November 17, 2019

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Last week, veteran political watchdog Bob Hall filed a formal complaint with the State Board of Elections questioning Senate President Phil Berger’s practice of paying himself “rent” from his campaign funds that he is then using to purchase real property.

While Berger has said this is not improper, Hall maintains the Senate leader should stop profiting personally from campaign contributions.

Today the editorial board of the Winston-Salem Journal comes down on the side of the Hall and good government. Here’s more from Friday’s editorial:

Talk about playing with house money …

Whether it is legal or not, it is wrong for the most powerful politician in the state to use campaign funds to buy a house. It’s a misuse that should concern taxpayers — especially those who contribute to the campaign.

Instead, staffers for Phil Berger, a Republican from Eden who is the president pro tem of the N.C. Senate, say no laws were broken, so what’s the big deal?

Simply put, Berger’s campaign allegedly is paying a company owned by Berger to rent the town house owned by Berger and his wife — enough to cover the monthly mortgage payments. And that is illegal, contends Bob Hall, the retired executive director of Democracy NC, who filed a complaint last week with the State Board of Elections. “Unless the State Board of Elections takes action, politicians will continue to profit handsomely by funneling campaign contributions to themselves, directly or indirectly, to pay for inflated expenses and subsidized assets,” Hall argues in his complaint.

Hall said at a news conference that the senator is using his campaign fund as “a piggy bank.” Hall’s complaint further alleged that Berger, through a second company he owns, is using campaign money to pay the rent and other expenses for his law firm in Eden. This means, according to campaign finance records, that Berger uses campaign money to pay himself a total of $3,000 a month for the Raleigh town house and his Eden law office.

As proof that he hasn’t broken any laws, a Berger representative counters that state elections officials have said he is not violating any campaign regulations by funneling money from his campaign to make payments on the $250,000, 1,400-square-foot town house.

Berger’s campaign staff says the senator first cleared the arrangement in 2016 with the state elections director at the time, Kim Strach, who served when Republican Pat McCrory was governor — and a second time with Karen Brinson Bell, who was appointed elections director by current Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Further, it is neither uncommon nor unreasonable for legislators to use some campaign money to supplement a modest stipend ($104 a day for meals and housing while the General Assembly is in session) to pay for rental housing in Raleigh. The law requires them to maintain their homes in their districts and some may live too far from Raleigh to commute on a daily basis.

Even so, Hall maintains that Berger is breaking the law. While it is OK to pay rent with campaign money, Hall contends, not so with a mortgage. Funneling the money to cover mortgage payments is entirely different, Hall said, because the money is being used to buy an asset that likely will increase in value.

Meanwhile, a Republican campaign official characterizes Hall’s complaint as nothing more than a partisan attack. “This is just another example of Bob Hall being a bottom-feeder and a scumbag,” Dylan Watts, the Senate Republicans’ political director, chirped classlessly to The News & Observer of Raleigh. That’s quite a disproportionate response to a legitimate concern.

If the law doesn’t make situations like this crystal clear, it needs to. Legislators should scrub it free of any ambiguity.

What Berger is doing is not ethical. And if any other lawmaker did it — Republican, Democrat, whoever — it would be just as wrong.

Read more in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Click here to read Hall’s complaint filed on November 6th with the State Board of Elections.