Eastern Band failed to report to NC officials $50K in donations

Asheville, North Carolina (AP) 10-07

The Eastern Band of Cherokee didn’t disclose more than $50,000 in political contributions since 2005 to state election officials because leaders believed they didn’t have to account for party donations.

The Eastern Band has given at least $174,000 to political candidates and committees over the past two years, according to records, but about a third of it wasn’t reported on the tribe’s filings with the State Board of Elections.

The North Carolina Democratic Party received at least $48,000 from the tribe in 2005 and 2006 and the state Republican Party received $5,000 this year, according to reports filed by the two parties.

“We didn’t report (contributions) to the party. We were under the impression that we didn’t have to,” Paxton Myers, chief of staff to Principal Chief Michell Hicks, told the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Party donations must be reported, as well as $4,000 in tribal checks to lawmakers that were never cashed and that the tribe ultimately voided, according to the elections board.

“Everybody needs to know where (campaign) money is coming from and how it’s being spent,” elections board director Gary Bartlett said. “It tells the story behind that party, behind that candidate or behind that issue.”

The board usually asks violators to fix reports, Bartlett said, but could fine them up to $10,000 per report if they fail to comply quickly. Bartlett said it’s rare for a political group to intentionally fail to report donations. The tribe did disclose contributions to several dozens candidates for the Legislature or statewide office.

Tribal leaders have gotten more involved in state politics since the mid-1990s, when the tribe entered into an agreement to operate video gambling machines and ultimately open a casino on its western North Carolina reservation.

In 2002, the election board ruled the Eastern Band could make campaign contributions to candidates for state and local offices even though it was labeled a corporation by the General Assembly.

“We have to build relationships just like any other corporation or entity,” Hicks said.

The contributions come from the tribe’s general fund, which received revenues from a tribal sales tax on the reservation and leases of property to businesses, he said. The tribe said it doesn’t use profits from the casino for political donations.