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Can a Pope sin? 

The state board of elections tackles the limits of a rich man's advocacy.

Imagine, if you will, that a very wealthy man--let's call him Art Pope--decided he'd had it with Republican legislators who were, in his view, nothing but RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).

Imagine that he helped to organize a group--let's call it Republicans Legislative Majority Committee -N.C.--which incorporated itself as an "advocacy committee" under Section 527 of the federal tax code. RLMC started advertising its view that there are RINOs loose in the General Assembly, and one of them is named (fill in the blank). These ads run in (blank's) district, or go out in mailings to Republican voters there, in the months leading up to a primary election.

(Blank) loses the primary to a "real Republican."

Then it turns out that RLMC's only contributor was this Art Pope. But because RLMC was a 527 committee doing "advocacy," it didn't have to report its contributions and expenditures during the election season as a "political committee" would be required to do under state elections laws. So nobody knew that.

Further, RLMC wasn't subject to the contribution limits on a political committee ($4,000 per contributor). So an Art Pope could give it, say, $260,000. What's more, the money could be taken from the family business, getting around the state's prohibition on corporate contributions to political campaigns--and perhaps making it tax-deductible as a business expense.

Would any of this be illegal?

We shall see.

Because, of course, Art Pope is a real Raleigh businessman, and a former legislator and candidate for lieutenant governor. His family owns the huge Variety Wholesale chain of discount stores. And in 2004 and again in 2006, their money--under his control--fueled the attack that toppled a half-dozen Republican legislators in primary elections for the sins of, first, not being true conservatives, and second, aligning themselves with the House Democrats via the co-speakership deal hatched between Republican Richard Morgan and Democrat Jim Black.

Morgan himself, after surviving the '04 attack, went down in the '06 primary.

Now, in a complaint filed with the State Board of Elections, Morgan is charging that RLM was no "advocacy" group, but rather the tip of a political campaign spear designed to take him out, and his allies with him.

RLMC coordinated its efforts with the state Republican Party and another Pope-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, a Washington-based nonprofit, as well as with GOP consultants like former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer, Morgan's complaint alleges.

In 2004, Pope spent at least $460,000 on his anti-Morgan campaign, the complaint says, according to records filed well after the election was over. In 2006, it continues, there's no way of knowing how much he spent, because RLMC hasn't filed a thing and Variety Wholesale never will.

Consider this the latest chapter--and a critical one--in the long-running debate over whether "big money" can be limited in politics.

If what Pope did is "advocacy" and not subject to political rules, then what would stop a Progress Energy, say, from targeting any legislators who got in the way of its nuclear expansion plans?

On the other hand, 527s have had a pretty free rein--both on the left (for example, the pro-Kerry group Americans Coming Together) and on the right (the anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth)--when it comes to taking huge sums of money from unidentified contributors and "electioneering" with it.

When the State Board of Elections agreed last week to conduct three days of hearings on Morgan's complaint starting Aug. 29 and to subpoena all relevant records sought by Morgan's attorney, Michael Weisel, it signaled that it means to go after "big money" in state campaigns in a big way.

Possible fines if Pope's found guilty of election law violations? Three times what he spent.

On the other hand, there's plenty more where that came from, and Pope can be expected to argue vociferously that the First Amendment allows rich and poor alike to spend all of their money, if they choose to, making their political views known.

A couple of follow-ups on earlier entries:

The Wake County Blue Ribbon Committee gets, at best, one of those white "honorable mention" badges after failing even to vote on its final report. With its ultra-conservative wing in revolt over the obvious fact that Wake's growth is outrunning its tax base, the conservative-dominated BRC went along with the decision of its co-chairs to issue a vague list of ideas that should be "fully evaluated" or "explored." Its only specific recommendations: a predictable 1-cent sales tax hike and higher property taxes--but no real-estate transfer or developers' impact fees, however. The co-chairs? Banker Frank Holding Jr. (First Citizens) and Progress Energy's No. 2 exec, Fred Day.

How conservative are Wake County's Republican legislators? All six of them voted against raising the state's minimum wage $1, to $6.15 an hour. That's Sens. Neal Hunt and Richard Stevens, and Reps. Russell Capps, Nelson Dollar, Rick Eddins and Paul Stam. (Eddins, nonetheless, was another of Art Pope's May primary victims.)

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