RALEIGH Condemning the role of money in elections, a Wake County judge on Wednesday banned Gov. Bev Perdue’s former fundraiser from the political world for two years and ordered him to pay a $25,000 fine.
Peter Reichard, 54, pleaded guilty to a felony count of obstruction of justice for his role in concealing an alleged scheme to funnel $32,000 from a wealthy Perdue donor through his Chapel Hill investment bank to a campaign aide.
Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens called Reichard’s actions “sheer foolishness.”
Ignoring campaign finance laws creates “an absolutely uncontrolled free-for-all in which honesty and truth and fairness is completely vanquished, where money talks and where money frequently tries to buy elections,” the judge said in issuing his ruling. “It seems like every election cycle we’ve got to revisit that.”
The governor’s re-election campaign moved quickly to distance itself from Reichard. In the campaign’s first comments about the indictment, Perdue attorney John Wallace said they were unaware of Reichard’s arrangement. The campaign acknowledged on Wednesday receiving an illegal benefit and forfeited $32,000.
Three more Perdue aides face charges related to her 2008 campaign. Juleigh Sitton, the aide who allegedly received the secret payments, and Trawick “Buzzy” Stubbs, a top Perdue donor who provided unreported campaign flights, are charged with obstruction of justice and causing the filing of false reports. Robert Lee Caldwell, a retired magistrate and Perdue supporter, is charged with obstruction of justice after a separate investigation alleged he concealed the source of a payment for a campaign flight.
In court, Reichard appeared soldiered as the prosecutor recited the evidence against him and the terms of the plea deal. He gave polite, confident responses to the judge’s questions, saying he “absolutely” understood his sentence. Attorneys mentioned Perdue’s name just once during the hearing.
‘Made some mistakes’
Reichard entered an Alford plea that allowed him to not admit guilt and avoid a jail term. He refused to comment as he left the courtroom but issued a statement acknowledging he has “made some mistakes along the way and today (paid) the price.”
The Greensboro businessman, who is the son of world-famous spiritual leader Ram Dass, will spend two years on probation during which he cannot solicit political contributions or work for a political organization in any fashion. He has 90 days to pay his fine.
His attorney, Hart Miles of Raleigh, told the judge about Reichard’s record of community service and presented letters of reference from two friends and a pastor. He emphasized that his client received no personal benefit from the arrangement – a point the judge said kept Reichard from prison.
At the hearing, Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby revealed new details about the under-the-table payments, saying that Reichard helped find investment opportunities at the same time he solicited contributions from Charles Michael Fulenwider, the donor who provided the money to pad Sitton’s salary.
Details of scheme revealed
The prosecutor said Fulenwider, a Morganton businessman who owns fast-food restaurants, initially discussed getting Sitton an economic-development job, but later reneged. Sitton, 49, a Morganton attorney and former staffer in the governor’s office, asked Fulenwider and Reichard about going on one of their companies’ payrolls while working for Perdue’s campaign. Both men declined, the prosecutor said.
But after further discussion, Fulenwider agreed to pay Reichard’s company, Tryon Capital Ventures, about $2,000 a month under an investment consulting services contract. Reichard then signed a consulting contract with Sitton and funneled Fulenwider’s money to her starting in August 2007.
“Neither Ms. Sitton nor Tryon provided consulting or investment advice to Mr. Fulenwider,” Willoughby told the judge.
At the same time, the Perdue campaign paid Sitton $3,000 a month, apparently unbeknownst to Fulenwider, for campaign work. After the May 2008 primary, Fulenwider expected his payments to stop but Reichard asked them to continue “because the campaign needed her but could not afford to pay,” Willoughby said.
At this point, the prosecutor said, Sitton moved to the state Democratic Party’s payroll earning $3,000 through the November election in addition to the off-the-books payments.
Fulenwider has not been charged in the investigation; Willoughby called it “not appropriate at this time.” But he also suggested more indictments could be forthcoming.
As for Reichard, the prosecutor said the sentence was appropriate.
“I believe we should demand more of those persons who directly influence our elections,” he said. “If the courts and the community don’t take this type of behavior seriously, I don’t think we can expect the public to have confidence in the electoral process or our government.”
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