Donations Or Bribes? Dueling Views As Lindberg Case Goes To Jury
Updated March 4 to reflect primary results:
Jurors heard opposing views Tuesday of Durham insurance magnate Greg Lindberg's donations to North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey as lawyers made closing arguments.
Federal prosecutors said Lindberg and two associates, John Gray and John Palermo, repeatedly offered Causey bribes to replace a deputy they found troublesome - and got caught on tape, over and over.
"This is an enthusiastic offer of a bribe" from men who wanted to "buy themselves an insurance commissioner," prosecutor Bill Stetzer said.
Defense lawyers said Lindberg, one of the state's biggest political donors, was entrapped by Causey and pursued by an FBI agent too inexperienced to see he had a weak case. They say Causey went after Lindberg because of his donations to former Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin, who beat Causey in 2012 before losing to him in 2016.
"If this was going to be a bribe, it was one of the dumbest bribes ever," said defense attorney Jack Knight, citing the paper trail left by writing checks to the state Republican party and the avoidance of subtler but illegal payments.
The trial started Feb. 19 and went to the jury Tuesday afternoon. U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. said it features a total of 12 attorneys.
Both teams argued that the mass of recordings collected after Causey went to the FBI should work in their favor. They said there are 115 recorded conversations, as well as emails and text messages related to political donations and Lindberg's desire to replace Deputy Commissioner Jackie Obusek.
Defense lawyers argued that Lindberg, Gray and Palermo were simply working to get a tough but fair regulator to replace what they described as an unresponsive and biased one. They noted that it took 30 recorded conversations to get to any mention of money, and then only after Causey asked "What's in it for me?" And they pointed to excerpts when defendents said they'd do whatever they could for Causey, as long as it complied with North Carolina election law.
"You're hoping things get better? That's OK," said defense lawyer Brandon McCarthy. "It's not OK to get a guaranteed benefit."
Prosecutors agreed that the campaign donations wouldn't be illegal unless there was a quid pro quo, or an expectation that Lindberg would get something for his money. Prosecutor James Mann said the long build-up to talking about money was part of a "delicate dance" in which Lindberg's team was sounding out Causey's willingness to take a bribe.
Mann and Stetzer say the recordings make it clear Lindberg and his co-defendents were negotiating a deal: Payments in exchange for picking their own regulator. And they say the trio talked about complying with the law to avoid getting caught.
The jury must now weigh charges against all three defendants. Lindberg is founder and chairman of Eli Global investment company and owner of Global Bankers Insurance Group. Palermo is described in the indictment as an executive with Eli Global and former chair of "a Chatham County political party." Gray is described in the indictment as a consultant for Lindberg who lives in Chapel Hill.
Robin Hayes, a former congressman and chairman of the state Republican party, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during the Lindberg investigation. He was not part of the trial in Charlotte.
Causey is running for re-election. He beat Ronald Pierce in Tuesday's Republican primary -- which means he'll go up against Goodwin, a Democrat, in November.