Is There a Price on Gary Phillips' Head? | NEWS: Triangles | Indy Week
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Is There a Price on Gary Phillips' Head? 

With two of U.S. Rep. Price's top assistants at his side, car wash king Bunkey Morgan makes a run at Phillips' Chatham County Commissioners seat

Bunkey Morgan's gold Cadillac would look out of place parked next to the modest little cottage that overlooks rolling Chatham County pastures and neighboring single-wide trailer homes.

But that doesn't matter, because no one ever sees Morgan's car--or anyone else's--at 2134 Silk Hope-Lindley Mill Road.

The trim little white house with its rural backdrop of weathered barns and empty fields is deserted. White vinyl shades cover every inch of every window. Beer cans nest in the bushes. The electric meter ticks slowly around, doling out watts to lamps that glow day and night from the hidden interior.

This house, two miles north of Silk Hope, N.C., is a formality for Morgan in his campaign for a Chatham County Commissioners seat this year. And the fact that he doesn't actually live there is only the beginning of the story, which is unfolding to reveal accusations of congressional meddling in local politics and an alleged illegal campaign contribution.

Morgan has gone through a complicated process to set himself up as a District 4 Democrat in the May primary. His change in residence and party affiliation, along with his list of core supporters, has some Chatham voters suspicious of his motives. They believe Morgan's candidacy is a targeted attempt to oust incumbent Chatham Commissioners Chairman Gary Phillips, a progressive Democrat. They allege Morgan has enlisted behind-the-scenes help from conservative Democrats, including staff members and supporters of Congressman David Price--and Price himself, whom Phillips has openly criticized on big-ticket Chatham issues such as Carolina Power & Light's nuclear storage facility.

"David Price hates Gary Phillips. He's a thorn in David's side. He's a progressive who believes in democracy, and Price does not like to be challenged on why he doesn't represent the people of the fourth [congressional] district and instead represents the people of CP&L and Progress Energy," says neighborhood activist and Phillips supporter Nancy Brown.

Price has already apologized once to Phillips, last month, for his staff's interference in a local asphalt controversy, in which Price's local liaison Bobby Stott lobbied commissioners to support the asphalt company owner, Seth Wooten. Wooten, a longtime friend of Stott's, has donated nearly $10,000 to Price since 1994, but Price says he did not authorize Stott to throw congressional weight around Chatham County for Wooten's benefit. This week, Price called Phillips to assure him once again he is not manipulating local politics, insisting he's not involved in Morgan's campaign.

"I've offered Gary Phillips personal assurances that I would not be taking a position in this race and neither I nor my staff will be involved in this race," Price says.

However, there remains a clear connection between Price's staff and Morgan's campaign. Price's Chatham campaign manager, Becky Loflin, is now running Morgan's campaign. And Stott, Price's veteran field representative, is a longtime friend of Morgan's and one of his political confidants.

Stott also happens to own the vacant house in Silk Hope where Morgan claims to live.

Morgan's campaign began last September, when he loaned his son, Raymond L. Morgan III, and two other family members the money to buy the Silk Hope cottage, according to a deed of trust between the two parties on file in the county Register of Deeds office. The family partnership, called RAS Rental, paid $154,000 for the house on Sept. 14, 2001, according to land records.

On Dec. 21, the family partnership sold the house to Stott, with Bunkey Morgan signing the papers representing the company, though he's not listed as a partner in RAS Rental. The loan Morgan made to his son's company was subsequently paid off and canceled. Stott and his wife borrowed only $152,773 from Carolina Farm Credit to buy the property, but land records indicate a total purchase price of $187,000--a profit of $33,000 in just three short months. Democracy South organizers allege the difference is a veiled political donation.

"It sounds like this house deal could be an illegal campaign contribution," says Peter Walz, of the Carrboro-based group, which studies the influence of money in politics. "It smells a lot like the Hardison case."

Walz was referring to a 1988 campaign, when Lenoir County Democrat Harold Hardison's unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor collected $465,000 in private donations disguised as land deals, according to a 1993 account in The News & Observer. The improprieties came to light years later, and only then because authorities audited the books of one of the donors while investigating an unrelated criminal matter. No charges were filed because the statute of limitations on elections laws had passed.

In the Chatham race, Morgan's 21 percent profit on the Silk Hope house deal doesn't sit too well with the incumbent he's challenging.

"It's very troubling to me that Bobby Stott gave Bunkey $30,000," says Phillips, who expects to be outspent 10-to-1 in the primary race. By law in Chatham County Commissioners races, candidates can accept a maximum of $4,000 from any one donor.

Both Morgan and Stott deny their real estate transaction has any political significance, and Morgan says it was his idea to sell the house to his old friend.

"I thought it would be a good investment for him, and I needed the money somewhere else," says Morgan, who owns four car washes in Cary, Durham and Raleigh that bear his nickname.

Stott laughs at the suggestion that the wealthy Morgan would need to launder money through a house sale to raise money for his campaign.

"Good, let 'em say that. That's wonderful," Stott says. "Bunkey Morgan can buy and sell you and me both and bury us with money."

Stott's boss declines to offer an opinion on the house purchase.

"It's a private real estate transaction that I did not know about, but there's no reason I should have," Price says. Asked his opinion about whether the deal seems odd to him, Price replies: "A private transaction of that sort is outside my purview as an employer."

After buying the house in September, Morgan officially kicked off his campaign in November, when he attended his first Chatham County Democrats' "Club 25" fundraiser dinner and publicly declared he would challenge Phillips in the May primary.

Chatham County Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Nettles wasn't too surprised at Morgan's announcement. But she had been shocked a few days earlier to learn that Loflin, Price's Chatham campaign chief, had taken a job with Morgan.

"We were floored. We were devastated when we heard Becky was going to be Bunkey's campaign manager," Nettles says. "Becky has been coming around for years, making us think she's a good strong Democrat. Now all of the sudden she says she's talked to Bunkey and they share a lot of the same values. I'm thinking, 'Huh?'"

Loflin did not return several phone calls, but Morgan confirmed he has hired her to manage his campaign.

Price denies that Loflin's new job creates a link between his office and Morgan's campaign. She is not currently working for him, but Loflin stumped for Price and managed his last two campaigns in Chatham.

In December, after announcing his candidacy, Morgan sold the Silk Hope house to Stott. Then, in January, he changed his address at the county elections office, declaring officially that he had moved to the 1,276-square-foot bungalow in District 4 from his address on Martha Chapel Road near Jordan Lake. County records show he has two houses on 13 acres there, with a combined tax value of $559,000. The newer one, built in 1993, is 3,100 square feet and valued at $421,242, according to tax records.

On Feb. 18, Morgan filed to run for commissioner as a Democrat in District 4 using the Silk Hope-Lindley Mill Road address.

Morgan, 58, says he's renting the house from Stott.

"We're renting it with a long-term lease. We're going to keep cows and horses there," Morgan says. "I've got a good lease."

But when pressed about where he sleeps each night, Morgan waffles.

"I've got a bunch of dwellings," Morgan says. "It's not nice to say you sleep around, but I've got about 12 places to choose from. I've got a place in Durham County, places in Chatham County, places in Wake County, and a house at the beach."

(While voters countywide elect all five Chatham commissioners, candidates have to live in the districts they represent.)

"Candidates have to establish residency when they file. They need to give us an address that shows they live in the district," says county Elections Director Dawn Stumpf. The elections board would only investigate if a formal complaint were lodged, she says. "As far as we are concerned, in our office, everything is hunky-dory."

For voters to contact him, Morgan lists a Siler City post office box and a cell phone number on his Web site, though a recent call to his Apex house reached his wife, who said her husband was at a basketball game and would be home later.

For his part, Stott says he plans to retire from his job in Price's office on April 2, and that's why he bought the Silk Hope property, which includes the 52-year-old house, 30 acres and several outbuildings. Stott currently lives in Raleigh.

So does he plan to move to Silk Hope next month? And if so, what is his arrangement with his tenant?

"I'm not gonna talk about that. That's between me and Bunkey," Stott replies.

Asked whether Morgan lives in the house Stott now owns, Stott says: "Yeah. Yeah. I rented it to him. That's right. But I'm not checking on nothing. As long as he's taking good care of everything he's supposed to, I'm not checking up on him."

To become a Democratic candidate in District 4, the Republican Morgan had to change more than his residency. He calls himself "a lifelong Democrat" who attended his first Young Democrats meeting at age 17--escorted by Stott. He says he only switched to the Republican ticket at the county GOP's request in 2000, when party leaders asked him to replace a candidate who had dropped out of the race in District 1, which covers Morgan's Apex-area neighborhood.

But elections records show Morgan listed himself as a Republican the first time he registered in Chatham County in 1994. In November of that year, he switched to "unaffiliated" and then, in August 2000, back to Republican. He registered as a Democrat in Chatham County for the first time on Oct. 2, 2001, records show. His voter registration in Wake County was unavailable; officials there only keep files for five years.

If elected, Morgan has a lot of big plans for Chatham County. He wants to allow the asphalt plant to expand. He wants "more businesses that will pay us big bucks." He wants to cut taxes and solicit more input from rural voters to counter the views of those in the area he calls "the aggressive northeast" of the county. Two years ago, Morgan ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for the District 1 commissioners' seat, on many of the same platforms. Also that year, he donated $4,000 to the Chatham County Republican Party PAC.

A native of Raleigh, Morgan's childhood outhouse sat right up over what is now the Outer Beltline, he says. He dropped out of Millbrook High School at 15 and went to work, eventually building a chain of four Bunkey's Car Wash outlets in Cary, Raleigh and Durham. A seven-year veteran of the planning board, he says he will bring his extensive business experience to the job of county commissioner.

"Being in business for yourself, when you have to make payroll and deal with a lot of different employees, is good experience," Morgan says. "I always try to look at both sides. I can sit down with a farmer or with someone from 3M Corporation."

At www.BunkeyMorgan.com, voters can listen to the kazoo-like strains of "America, the Beautiful" while reading about why Morgan thinks the incumbents have to go. Morgan slams Phillips for his alliance with N.C. Waste Awareness Reduction Network (N.C. WARN), a grassroots group that has challenged CP&L's practices at its Shearon Harris plant and asked Price to intervene with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission to answer his constituents' concerns about environmental impacts and safety.

The nuclear waste issue is the most blatant example of the philosophical chasm between Phillips, the Democratic commissioner who supports N.C. WARN, and Price, the Democratic congressman who has accepted so much CP&L money ($36,650 from 1993 to 2001) that the power company has topped his corporate contributors for the last four election cycles, according to Democracy South.

"I'd call myself a CP&L critic, and I'd call David a CP&L supporter. And that's a pretty big difference," says Phillips.

After The Independent contacted him for this article, Price called Phillips again to reassure him that neither he nor his staff would work against Phillips' bid for re-election. Phillips says he advised Price there is strong public perception to the contrary.

"The fact that David Price's campaign manager and a member of his field office are involved with this Republican-turned-Democrat candidate for county commissioner--it definitely appears that David Price is involved in defeating a fellow Democrat in Chatham County," says Walz, of Democracy South.

Morgan is apparently so determined to defeat Phillips that he's willing to move from a luxury home near Jordan Lake to a cottage in Silk Hope. Recently, Phillips drove up Morgan's new driveway and blew his horn. No one came out, but Phillips still knows who's on the inside with Morgan--Stott and Loflin. Both have undeniable ties to Rep. Price, and both remind Phillips that he's been a thorn in the side of some of Price's biggest campaign contributors.

"I don't believe I've been playing the big boy political game, and I'm being punished for it," says Phillips.

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