Aug 14, 2022 - Politics

Associates of N.C. AG's 2020 opponent donated to Wake County DA

Photo illustration of North Carolina Attorney General, Josh Stein, with lines radiating from him.
Photo illustration: Allie Carl/Axios. Photo: Jeff Hahne/Getty Images

People close to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein's 2022 opponent donated to the same Wake County district attorney whose office is pursuing a criminal investigation into Stein's campaign.

Driving the news: Forsyth County DA Jim O'Neill's wife, assistant Forsyth DA Jennifer Martin, and a man who's O'Neill's business partner funneled cash into Wake County DA Lorrin Freeman's campaign for reelection ahead of her May primary this year, campaign finance records show.

  • Those donations came around the same time Freeman's office was deciding whether to take a case against Stein to a grand jury, court records show.

Catch up quick: O'Neill, a Republican who lost his 2020 bid for state Attorney General to Stein, filed a complaint that year with North Carolina's State Board of Elections against Stein's campaign.

  • In the complaint, O'Neill accused Stein's campaign of violating a century-old law that prohibits anyone from publishing or circulating knowingly false, derogatory information about candidates.
  • The elections board investigated the complaint and recommended the case be closed, saying it wasn't clear that Stein's ad was false, Axios reporting partner WBTV scooped Thursday.
  • Freeman's office launched an investigation anyway, and after a back and forth in court, Stein could face an indictment as early as Monday in the case.

Why it matters: The newly uncovered donations link Freeman, a Democrat, to fellow DA O'Neill, who has a vested interest in the outcome of the case.

  • Freeman has declined to investigate similar claims O'Neill made during the campaign, despite calls from the North Carolina Democratic Party in recent days for her to do so.
  • "District Attorney Freeman should apply equal protection under the law and open an investigation into Jim O'Neill's repeated efforts to spread knowingly false and derogatory reports against Attorney General Stein with the intent to hurt his reelection campaign," state party spokesperson Kate Frauenfelder said in a statement last week.

Yes, but: The donations total just shy of $3,000, a fraction of the more than $200,000 Freeman has raised for her re-election so far.

  • Freeman has emphasized that she recused herself in the case, which is being handled by Assistant District Attorney David Saacks.
  • "I was recused and not involved in any investigation or decisions regarding this case," Freeman said in an email to Axios Sunday. "David Saacks had no knowledge of any financial support to my campaign."

The other side: In an email to Axios Sunday, O'Neill said his wife has a "constitutional right to support the candidates she chooses to support."

Between the lines: The case has effectively pitted two powerful Democrats with political ambitions against each other.

  • As the second most powerful Democrat in the state, Stein is the party's likely choice to succeed Gov. Roy Cooper in 2024.
  • Freeman — arguably the most powerful prosecutor in the state — is well-positioned to make a run at Stein's office after he vacates it.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a comment from O'Neill.

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