RALEIGH — A longtime North Carolina state senator was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury on charges stemming from allegations he spent more than $200,000 in campaign funds over nine years for his personal benefit.
The 14-count fraud and money laundering indictment against Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, R-Cabarrus, was handed down in central North Carolina federal court district. It comes three months after a Wake County grand jury indicted Hartsell, a former chairman of the Legislative Ethics Committee, on three state counts of filing false campaign reports.
The State Board of Elections began auditing his campaign finances in early 2013 after questions were raised about credit card payments made using campaign funds. About $210,000 belonging to Hartsell’s campaign committee was improperly spent “on personal goods and services for his own enrichment” from early 2007 through the end of last year, Tuesday’s indictment says.
The indictment alleges he took money from his campaign account and funneled it to his law firm and a company he owned with his wife. The indictment says Hartsell had justified to State Board of Elections investigators spending campaign money on trips to Edenton and to Charleston South Carolina, as well as for tickets to see “Jersey Boys” and to get haircuts.
Hartsell’s campaign committee money also went to personal items such as lawn care, finance charges on personal credit cards and club memberships, or it went to reimburse his law firm for his personal expenses, according to the indictment.
Hartsell didn’t immediately return phone calls to his Concord home and law office and to his Raleigh legislative office. Hartsell’s lawyer also didn’t respond to a phone message. Hartsell’s first court appearance is Thursday morning in Greensboro, the federal government’s news release said in announcing the charges.
Hartsell faces five counts of mail fraud, three counts of wire fraud, and six counts of money laundering. Each count is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and a minimum of $500,000 in fines or property value.
Campaign finance laws “must be enforced in order to protect the integrity of the American democratic process. If you abuse the power granted to you as an elected official, the FBI will work tirelessly to ensure you are held accountable for your actions,” John Strong, the FBI’s top agent in Charlotte, said in a release.
Hartsell, 69, joined the Senate in 1991 and is the chamber’s longest-serving senator, completing his 13th term. He decided last year not to seek re-election this fall. Well-liked by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, Hartsell has leadership roles on a Senate judiciary committee and the tax-writing committee.
The mail fraud counts are related to accusations he used the U.S. mail to send fraudulent campaign reports to the State Board of Elections.
Hartsell’s electronic correspondence to donors requesting campaign contribution constitutes wire fraud, the indictment alleges, while the money laundering occurred when depositing money from his campaign’s bank account to the Hartsell & Williams law firm and Equity Properties of Concord, the couple’s company that owned a building and rented space.
Starting in October 2006, state law limited the use of campaign funds essentially to expenses related to running for or holding public office and to charity. Hartsell received annually training materials laying out these and other restrictions, but instead engaged in a scheme to defraud and obtain money and property through false pretenses, the indictment says.
Hartsell told an elections board investigator the trip to Charleston with his wife’s hand-bell choir was proper because constituents were present, attending the “Jersey Boys” performance “constituted ‘therapy’ for him,” and that he was a “hippie” and wouldn’t get haircuts without being a legislator, the indictment says. He later withdrew these and similar claims, according to the indictment.