Democrats have a close call to make in the primary election for Wake County District Attorney. Lorrin Freeman, 43, now Wake's Clerk of Superior Court, would be a solid choice. Most Democratic leaders (Josh Stein, Caroline Sullivan, Charles Meeker) are for Freeman. Boz Zellinger, 32, an assistant district attorney, is an up-and-comer. Former Congressman Brad Miller is in Zellinger's camp. The INDY recommended Zellinger.
Enter the State Employees Association of North Carolina. SEANC, too, endorsed Zellinger. SEANC then proceeded to trash Freeman in mailers designed to make it appear that, either by negligence or worse, Freeman was responsible for crimes involving the mishandling of bail bonds—money—allegedly committed by two of her 160 employees in the clerk's office.
In fact, the opposite is the case: Freeman is the one who—after another employee tipped her that something strange was going on—triggered the investigation that led to the pair being indicted. Allegedly, they were gaming the state's vulnerable software to help some bail bondsmen dodge required bond forfeitures.
Freeman's role in exposing the crime and pointing to the software problem was conveniently omitted by SEANC.
In short, Freeman is the heroine of this tale, not the shadowy villain portrayed in the SEANC flyers.
I'll come back to SEANC's motivation in going after Freeman. The more important consideration, with the May 6 primary approaching, is that SEANC's smears set up a test for Zellinger. SEANC was supporting him and attacking his opponent with, to quote former District Attorney Colon Willoughby, "deceptive and dishonest" ads. Should Zellinger, the undoubted underdog in the primary, watch to see if the SEANC ads would hurt Freeman? Or was he obligated to denounce SEANC's attacks and defend Freeman, even at the risk of losing SEANC's help?
Call me old school, but I think there's a higher obligation in politics than winning. And by that standard—and despite numerous pleas from Democrats—Zellinger fell short.
For more than a week, Zellinger's silence signaled his acquiescence in SEANC's tactics. "I'm not responsible for what SEANC does," was his stock reply.
Finally, after Freeman and Willoughby, whose office led the investigation, issued public statements calling on him to repudiate the SEANC ads, Zellinger did speak up to affirm Freeman's integrity. "I strongly disagree with any assertion that she is responsible for these felonies," Zellinger told me Thursday.
But within hours Zellinger had doubled down on SEANC's other charge—that Freeman, if not a felon, was nonetheless negligent. In an email to supporters Thursday night, he wrote: "It is appropriate, however, to ask whether there were safeguards in place to make sure this conduct didn't happen in an office that handles large sums of money. It is appropriate to ask why they didn't exist."
No, it's not.
When your well-qualified opponent—who is also your friend, according to Zellinger—is being smeared, it is not appropriate to say, well, she's not dirty, but maybe she's sloppy. Especially when there's absolutely no evidence that she was or is sloppy, and there's contrary evidence that the real culprits are a weak 1999 state law on bond forfeitures made weaker by the lack of audit trails in the software supplied by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
As Willoughby said, to imply that Freeman is at fault, after she spotted the problem and helped identify its causes, is like blaming a crime victim for the crime itself.
Now, why is SEANC endorsing one candidate in a Democratic primary for Wake DA and trashing the other? In a blog post last week, I asserted that the reason is simple: SEANC is retaliating against Freeman for criticizing one of their programs last year. In response, SEANC Executive Director Dana Cope said I couldn't be more wrong. Their interest, Cope said, is because the Wake DA has jurisdiction over political corruption cases that arise from state government. Cope also told me I was wrong about their ads. They don't imply that Freeman is corrupt, he said. Only that she's a "bad manager."
Gee, so those smarmy mailers have nothing to do with what Freeman said about SEANC and Purchasing Power, an Atlanta-based company that arranges for members of organizations like SEANC to buy consumer products, through payroll deduction, at far higher prices than they'd pay in a store?
Freeman's comments—some of her employees are SEANC members, and she thought they were being taken advantage of—brought on a WRAL-TV report that, if it didn't embarrass SEANC, it should've.
Not a thing, Cope answered. I had it all wrong. Purchasing Power, he added, is "wildly popular" with his members.
So popular that SEANC pockets $288,000 a year from it, less the cost of one SEANC staffer to coordinate, according to SEANC documents found by Greg Flynn, an indefatigable researcher and Democratic activist in Raleigh.
Flynn, I think, got it right when, after getting an earlier campaign solicitation from Zellinger, he wrote back with some advice:
"Sorry, Boz," Flynn wrote. "I like you a lot but until you ... stand up to SEANC, the words [from your campaign] ring hollow. SEANC makes $288,000 per year off the backs of state workers with poor credit using the overpriced Purchasing Power program. Lorrin Freeman was right to bring this to light. SEANC is wrong to seek revenge and it's wrong for you to quietly let that happen."
That was good advice.
As the INDY went to press, Zellinger sent a text saying he would "do something about SEANC shortly." For more on that, check my Citizen blog.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Boz Zellinger's SEANC Problem."