RALEIGH, N.C. -- The State Board of Elections dismissed a complaint Wednesday against a Republican group accused of using mailings to attack GOP House members who had allied with Democrats at the General Assembly, determining that the group barely avoided breaking the law.
By a vote of 4-1, the board determined that Republican Legislative Majority of North Carolina, a so-called "527" group, didn't violate the state law that requires disclosure of donations and expenditures for mailings that advocate expressly for a candidate.
One particular set of mailings with a baseball motif urged recipients to "call out" legislators, but didn't directly call for their defeat in the May primary, even though the lawmakers were named in the flyers, a majority on the board decided.
"Under the current status of the law, I believe they have operated within that law," board chairman Larry Leake said at the close of two days of hearings.
The board also unanimously found no evidence that the group coordinated its work with the incumbents' challengers or the state Republican Party.
The complaint had been filed by House Speaker Pro Tempore Richard Morgan, R-Moore, one of the five incumbents targeted by the group and one of two along with Rep. Rick Eddins, R-Wake, who lost their primaries.
The series of mailers had highlighted their voting records on taxes, redistricting and a power-sharing agreement between Morgan and House Speaker Jim Black, D-Mecklenburg.
Morgan's complaint to the board marks another clash between moderate GOP members and conservative Republicans who believe Morgan and his political friends betrayed the party by allying with Democrats.
Morgan alleged the committee hid contributions and crossed the line into express advocacy, enough to earn a fine and an order to return any unlawful donations. He said after the ruling that he would consider appealing the decision to the courts.
The group was bankrolled by the family-owned businesses of Morgan's political rival, former state Rep. Art Pope, and Morgan said he took "offense at a Wake County CEO millionaire trying to buy up legislative seats.
"The best thing we can do is let people know about that," Morgan said.
Pope, who testified earlier Wednesday that the group took care to follow the rules and only educate voters about their representatives, said he was pleased with the decision and said Morgan was trying to blame him for his election defeat.
"It's a vindication of the Republican Legislative Majority," Pope said. "We fully complied with the law."
Leake said after the meeting that the board probably would have sided with Morgan if the federal courts hadn't already blocked enforcement of one state election law. The law would give the board more leeway to explore other activities of the Republican Legislative Majority as it decided whether the mailers were legal.
Pope and his lawyers said the "call out" mailers were designed to urged voters to confront a candidate on the issues, not to defeat one.
"It comes so close to the line of being express advocacy," board member Genevieve Sims said.
Bob Cordle was the only member to vote against dismissal of the accusation, saying the group crossed the line and should have been ordered to pay an $18,000 penalty, the cost of the ads.
Pope's family businesses gave at least $186,000 to the Republican Legislative Majority this year, generating more than 300,000 pieces of mail to the targeted districts, according to records and Morgan's attorneys.
Republican Legislative Majority is a so-called "527" group that can receive unlimited amounts of corporate money. Recent state laws attempt to require more disclosure from these independent political groups.
Morgan testified during the two-day hearing that he filed the complaint to reduce the power of 527 groups and corporate influence in elections.
Pope told the board his group modeled its organization after a similar 527 group begun in 2004, the Republican Main Street Committee, which supported Morgan and other Republicans who had cooperated with Democrats in the state House.
Republican Main Street was disbanded before the 2006 elections.