As primary approaches, Lindberg trial emerging as issue in governor's race

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- He wants to turn North Carolina red, but opponents are demanding Lt. Gov. Dan Forest answer questions about the green.

Forest, the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor, is among several politicians of both parties to receive significant campaign contributions from Greg Lindberg, the Durham insurance executive now on trial for federal charges of attempted bribery and corruption.

Lindberg is pleading not guilty to the charges; Forest himself faces no charges nor is he being investigated for any alleged wrongdoing.

Forest, who in 2013 became the first Republican lieutenant governor in decades, declined to speak on camera with ABC11 but spoke on the phone with ABC11's newsgathering partner, the Raleigh News & Observer.

"Money is neutral," Forest told the N&O. "There's nothing about somebody giving you money that is bad. If the money came from a nefarious purpose or something like that, that's different. But (others) received the money legally, we received the money legally."

An ABC11 I-Team analysis of campaign-finance records shows more than $2.4 million donated to Forest's campaign and groups supporting his campaign from Lindberg and employees from his insurance conglomerate, Eli Global.

In 2017 alone, those contributions made up 81.47 percent of all contributions to the Dan Forest Campaign, Republican Council of State, and the Truth and Prosperity Political Action Committee.

A further review by the I-Team of those campaign finance reports also shows many of the donors are from out of state.

One Florida-based employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ABC11 that he was told by his managers to contribute to the campaign even without knowing Dan Forest nor the race in which he ran.

Marshall Hurley, former General Counsel for the North Carolina Republican Party, said out-of-state money is not uncommon in big political battles. Still, he said the intent of campaign-finance laws is to promote honesty and transparency of the donor.

"People who raise money for political campaigns go to friends and neighbors and colleagues and coworkers," Hurley explained to ABC11. "Politically, there is an advantage in that we always believed that having more contributors sent out a ripple effect in the community."

The contributions, though, should still be what Hurley calls "voluntary" and of "free will."

"There's a lot of this process that relies on the good faith and fair dealing and integrity of candidates, campaigns and contributors," Hurley emphasized. "The whole idea (of campaign finance laws) was to give voters a chance to understand the forces at work and the industries involved. Maybe not to change giving, but to inform voters and that's still the ideal and that's still important."

Before his arrest, Lindberg was the largest political donor in North Carolina -- more than $5 million to North Carolina candidates, party committees and independent expenditure groups.

Last year, the FBI arrested four people and reported investigators uncovered an alleged scheme involving Lindberg, two associates, and then-NCGOP chairman Robin Hayes to bribe and influence North Carolina's Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey. The scheme included individual expenditure accounts and improper campaign contributions designed to get Causey to take official action that would benefit Lindberg's company.

The indictment alleges that the conspirators offered Causey millions of dollars to remove a deputy commissioner in charge of overseeing regulation and periodic examination of Lindberg's company.

"I know these men and consider most of them friends. I have read the indictments and they are very troubling," Forest said in a statement April 2, 2019. "I believe in the presumption of innocence and thus will withhold judgment. But I agree with the rule of law and if laws were broken, then justice should be served. They are facing serious charges."

Rep. Holly Grange, a Republican from New Hanover County, is challenging Forest for the GOP nomination to take on incumbent Gov. Roy Cooper.

"I do think the elect-ability is in question of someone who has taken all of this money," Grange told ABC11. "If Roy Cooper does not have a competitive race, he's going to do what he can to flip the Legislature, flip the Council of State and flip judicial races. If he is the nominee, I guarantee you'll hear about it every day."
Copyright © 2020 WTVD-TV. All Rights Reserved.