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NC lawsuit ties casinos, campaign money and defamation claims

Danielle Battaglia, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in Political News

A lawsuit filed by former Rockingham County Commissioner Craig Travis against Commissioner Kevin Berger, the son of Senate leader Phil Berger, provides new details about how, Travis alleges, state lawmakers and local leaders attempted to secure a casino in Stokesdale.

Berger is one of three commissioners, along with the chairwoman of Rockingham County’s Republican Party and three political organizations, named as defendants in the libel lawsuit, which accuses them of false statements that cost Travis his election.

Neither Berger, Commissioner Don Powell nor GOP chairwoman Diane Parnell knew about the lawsuit when McClatchy reached out for comment. Commissioner Mark Richardson could not immediately be reached for comment.

“When (Travis) campaigned on his opposition to the pro-casino measures supported by the incumbent Commissioners and opposed by the majority of the residents of Rockingham County, the defendant Commissioners sought to discredit him by publishing defamatory statements to voters in the 2024 primary election,” the lawsuit states. “This unlawful course of action was financially supported by a Virginia-based dark money organization, which through local conduits, spent tens of thousands of dollars to oppose the plaintiff’s campaign for a seat on the Board of Commissioners.”

For a moment, it appeared that the effort to defeat Travis failed and Travis had unseated Berger. On March 5, election results showed Travis leading Berger by just seven votes. But once provisional and absentee ballots were added, Berger pulled ahead by three, and a recount confirmed his reelection.

Now Travis alleges in a lawsuit filed Monday that a series of attack ads stemming from his opposition to allowing a casino in Rockingham County led to his demise.

Campaign contributions to NC lawmakers

The saga, the lawsuit states, began as far back as August 2021, when NC Development Holdings, LLC, was formed in Delaware. The president of the company is Joseph Weinberg, the chief executive officer of Cordish Gaming Group, the casino division of Cordish Company.

The lawsuit alleges that Weinberg, along with Cordish’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer, made donations to Republican members of North Carolina’s General Assembly between Nov. 2, 2022, and Jan. 26, 2023.

Weinberg made maxed out contributions of $5,600 to Senate leader Phil Berger, House Majority Leader John Bell and Rep. Jason Saine.

Saine has been a longtime supporter of gambling in North Carolina. Prior to receiving Cordish’s donation on Nov. 7, 2022, Saine was already attempting to legalize sports betting in the state.

The lawsuit says that after Saine received Cordish’s donation, he asked Greater Carolina Inc. – a tax-exempt political organization founded by Saine’s former chief of staff, Clark Reimer – to hire Spectrum Gaming Group to prepare a document in support of legalizing casinos and other types of gambling in North Carolina.

The report, published in March 2023, suggested operating casinos in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties.

Saine said Monday afternoon none of what’s alleged about him in the lawsuit is true. He said he wasn’t personally aware of Weinberg’s donation to his campaign committee, but if he received one it’s likely due to his ongoing support of gambling in the state.

As for Greater Carolina, he said, he doesn’t tell them what to do.

He added that he could not handle working on casinos and sports betting at the same time.

Rockingham’s casino

The lawsuit alleges that during spring 2023, Cordish was speaking with the Senate leader, his son and other Rockingham County officials about the casino.

NC Development Holdings hired Zach Almond — among several other lobbyists — to lobby on Cordish’s behalf, the lawsuit states. Almond is an employee of The Differentiators, a political consulting firm founded by Berger’s former chief of staff, Jim Blaine and Berger’s former spokesman, Ray Martin. He also works for Almond Miner Relations.

Cordish applied to rezone 200 acres of land in Stokesdale, just inside Rockingham County’s boundary.

The county’s planning board then began making changes that would make it easier for a casino to operate in Rockingham County.

On June 15 and 16, 2023, all of the Rockingham County commissioners and other county officials were in Maryland meeting with Cordish’s team, the lawsuit states. The lawsuit alleges that no minutes from this meeting were made available to the public and there was no notice ahead of time, despite a quorum of the board being present.

The lawsuit further states that the county commissioners denied to Rockingham County residents the meeting took place and told residents that Travis lied about the meeting, but that Rockingham County Attorney Clyde Albright recently confirmed the meeting. The lawsuit does not say who Albright confirmed the meeting to, but said that Rockingham County residents had been asking for minutes of the meeting.

The Rockingham County Planning Board eventually denied Cordish’s rezoning request, on July 10, 2023, after seven people spoke out against it at a meeting.

On July 20, WRAL was given a draft copy of the Rural Tourism Incentive Program bill that would legalize casinos, without the name of the bill’s sponsors. That same day, Sen. Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore held a news conference and said the bill had more legislative support than the sports betting bill.

The lawsuit alleges that commissioners Berger, Richardson and Powell spent the summer denying to residents that there were plans for a casino to be built in Rockingham County, and that Cordish’s rezoning application had anything to do with a casino.

 

On Aug. 21, the commissioners met to consider the rezoning application. Nine hundred people attended the meeting, which had to be screened through a live feed in an overflow room. Both former Rep. Mark Walker, a Republican from Greensboro, and Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page spoke out against the casino, along with 16 other people.

The commissioners unanimously approved it anyway.

NC lawmakers consider casinos

The finalized bill was released to the public on Sept. 18, and tied to Medicaid expansion.

A day later, Berger and Moore held another news conference, this time announcing they would separate the bill from Medicaid and the budget. Berger told reporters he didn’t think the casinos would be voted on during the current session.

Immediately afterward, the only two members of Rockingham County’s planning board who voted against allowing casinos during the July 12 vote were removed from the board by the county commissioners. The lawsuit alleges it was retribution from Berger, Powell and Richardson. County officials then called for term limits of the planning board’s members.

The lawsuit says that proposal was made “to provide cover for Defendant Berger, Defendant Powell, and Defendant Richardson to purge from the Planning Board two members who had hindered their efforts to smoothly gain approval for Cordish’s Rezoning Application and opposed efforts to bring a casino to Rockingham County.”

One of the members was replaced by Parnell’s husband.

‘Dark money’

Travis alleges in the lawsuit Powell, Richardson and Berger were furious that he exposed their “misrepresentations” of their involvement in Cordish and their efforts to bring a casino to Rockingham County.

He accuses them of attacking him with the help of North Carolina Conservatives Fund, Atlas Political Consulting, LLC. and GOPAC, Inc.

Tax-exempt political organizations are not required to reveal their donors’ information and can give unrestricted amounts of money to super PACs.

The North Carolina Conservatives Fund has operated under five different iterations of its name. In February 2024, the group sought to change its name from Eastern Carolina Conservative Fund to The North Carolina Conservatives Fund.

The tax-exempt organization, run by Royce Everette Jr., works to elect or defeat candidates from the federal to the local level.

Everette’s family owns Time Investment, a chain of financing stores based in Greenville. Democracy North Carolina found Everette to be one of the largest donors in the state. Transparency USA shows Everette, through his companies, has donated $10,800 each to Berger and Moore’s campaign committees.

At times, the organization used funding from GOPAC Inc., a tax-exempt Republican group, to mail attack ads against Travis to voters. Board of Elections records show that the majority of the Conservatives Fund money came from GOPAC.

Berger sits on GOPAC’s advisory board.

Atlas Political Consulting, LLC is based in Wake County. The company often sent the mailers on Conservatives Fund’s behalf. It is run by Nathan Babcock, who Blaine and Berger hired in 2011 to work with state Senate candidates. He later became the Republican Senate Caucus political director before becoming a lobbyist.

In 2020, he created Atlas Political Consulting for “consulting and advising Sen. Berger and the NC Republican Senate Caucus,” according to the company’s website.

“The false statements made about Mr. Travis in the False Attack Ads, Facebook posts, email, and other communications described herein constitute more than the mere vituperation and name calling that is characteristic of political campaigns and protected by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit states. “These false statements were made with actual malice and intended to harm Mr. Travis’s reputation in Rockingham County by lowering Mr. Travis in the estimation of potential voters in the 2024 Board of Commissioners election and deterring others from supporting his campaign.”

The attacks ranged from allegedly editing TV interviews of Travis to mislead the public to accusing him of deflating Powell’s tires outside a GOP meeting to saying he stole his opponents’ campaign signs.

The lawsuit lays out each of the attacks, who specifically made the attack and whether they were verbal, through social media posts, text messages, emails or mailers.

Travis is represented by Alicia Jurney with Smith Debnam Law. He is suing for more than $100,000.

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©2024 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Visit at mcclatchydc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

 

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