Forest and others should give back tainted donations

Large political contributions often have the look of legalized bribery. That’s bad enough. But what should political funds and parties do when they have accepted large contributions from someone who is later charged with actual bribery?

They should give the money back. It’s tainted and it taints them. If the money has been spent, then donate an equal amount to a charity or a good government group. But that’s not what’s happening in North Carolina. The pols are hanging onto the suspect cash.

A remarkable story by WRAL’s Travis Fain this week revealed that campaign finance reports show no one is returning millions of dollars in contributions from Greg Lindberg, owner of the Durham-based investment company Eli Global, LLC, and Global Bankers Insurance Group. Lindberg is charged with attempting to bribe state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. Also named in the indictment unsealed in April were former congressman and former GOP State Party Chair Robin Hayes and two of Lindberg’s associates, John D. Gray, a consultant, and John V. Palermo, an Eli Global executive and former head of the Chatham County Republican Party.

The federal indictments came because Causey, a Republican, suspected Lindberg’s intentions and went to the authorities. Other North Carolina office holders and political leaders — Republican and Democrat — were less wary. Lindberg showered money on a PAC supporting then-Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, now the head of the state Democratic Party, a House Republicans’ campaign fund, the state Democratic and Republican parties, a PAC that backs Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and a fund headed by Forest that also supports state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.

The first politician who should be divesting himself of Lindberg’s cash is Forest, a Republican who plans to run for governor in 2020. Lindberg gave $2.4 million to two groups backing Forest. One is a PAC called Truth & Prosperity; the other raises funds for Republican Council of State members, though it appears only Forest and Johnson are supported by the fund.

Truth & Prosperity is a PAC legally independent of Forest and he technically can’t control its activities, though he certainly could suggest that it return Lindberg’s donations or donate them elsewhere. Forest does have a direct role in the second fund, the N.C. Republican Council of State Committee. He said in April that the fund would consider an “option” of returning the $1.4 million it received from Lindberg. But last week, he said in the WRAL report, “Right now, we’re keeping it.”

Forest maintains that Lindberg’s alleged bribery had nothing to do with the money he gave to the two funds that support him. What then does he think the contributions have to do with? Is Lindberg just a fan of Forest’s conservative politics? That’s odd, because Lindberg and one of his companies also gave $750,000 to the state Democratic Party in 2018. (A party spokesman told WRAL there are no plans to return the contributions.)

Lindberg, who appeared suddenly on the state political scene and started writing big checks, wasn’t simply a political supporter. He appeared to be seeking influence over insurance company regulations. His behavior alarmed Causey and prompted the state Senate Republican campaign fund to wave off a proposed Lindberg donation.

But those two instances of honesty and wariness stand against a grasping willingness by both parties to accept Lindberg’s big contributions and then, after his indictment, an ethics-free unwillingness to give the money back.