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A strange 527 in North Carolina

Chris Fitzsimon

It is virtually impossible to keep up with all the advocacy groups weighing in on this election, running ads for and against candidates for governor, president and Congress. The names of the groups in the database at the Federal Elections Commission reads like a list of vague, focus-group words designed to say nothing.

There’s Freedom’s Watch, Alliance for a Better Tomorrow, Patriot Majority, Americans Majority and dozens more, all running ads across the country against a candidate they don’t like, usually with money from a few wealthy individuals.

One effort in North Carolina targeting Sen. Barack Obama deserves far more attention that it has received from the state’s media, given the involvement of a prominent businessman and philanthropist and two sitting state legislators.

A recent article by a project of the Sunlight Foundation in Washington tells the story of a new nonprofit in North Carolina called RightChange.com Inc. that has already spent $600,000 on ads in several states attacking Obama’s fiscal policy.

The group’s reports filed with the FEC list two Republican members of the North Carolina General Assembly, Rep. Jeff Barnhart and Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, as two of the three people exercising control of the group’s activities.

RightChange has issued press releases about polls purporting to show opposition to Obama’s economic policies in states including Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania. Another release called Obama’s plan “idiotic, not patriotic,” but it is the commercials the group has produced that have drawn national attention while barely registering in North Carolina outside of a few blog posts.

One ad implies that Obama wants to raise taxes on small businesses to 62 percent. Another features a man jumping from a bridge in despair, only to be caught by a “Bungee Cord of Truth.” Another ad blasts “Barack Obama’s bailout.”

There’s not much subtlety in the message and not much truth either, according to groups like the Tax Foundation, long cited by the folks on the right as a important source of information about state and federal taxes.

The foundation calls the ad about small business taxes “ridiculous” and an “outright, nonsensical lie.” But RightChange has the money to keep telling it.
FEC reports show that the group has raised $3.73 million, $2.73 million of it from Fred Eshelman, the CEO of Pharmaceutical Product Development Inc. in Wilmington.

The School of Pharmacy at UNC was renamed for Eshelman in May after he gave more than $30 million to the university. The other million for RightChange came from Ernest Mario, who serves on the board of Eshelman’s company and is CEO of his own firm. The pharmacy school at Rutgers is named after Mario.

Eshelman is no stranger to North Carolina politics. He has given money to Republicans and Democrats in past elections, including former Gov. Jim Hunt, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.

His contributions on the federal level are not as bipartisan. He’s given only to Republican candidates and political committees, more than $200,000 since 2002, including donations to Republican senators Elizabeth Dole and Richard Burr and the McCain presidential campaign.

Hartsell and Barnhart are generally two of the more moderate Republicans in the General Assembly, not exactly the most likely candidates to be part of such an aggressive and misleading partisan attack. But it’s no surprise that the legislators know Eshelman.

His company announced this spring that it was opening an office at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis, founded by billionaire David Murdock, that receives state funding through the UNC system and local taxpayer support for construction through tax increment financing (TIF).

Barnhart and Hartsell were founders of another nonprofit that worked on behalf of Murdock’s project and Hartsell introduced legislation in 2007 that resulted in the research campus receiving $26 million of taxpayer money.

The documents from RightChange were sent to the FEC by Paula L. Hopper with the Raleigh law firm Kilpatrick Stockton. Hopper is a lobbyist for development interests at the General Assembly.

It’s a tangled web involving not just partisan politics and misleading commercials but elected officials and taxpayer money and key supporters of the university system. It’s too important to ignore.

The News & Observer did mention Eshelman recently, just two days before RightChange filed its FEC reports. The story was part of an ongoing series about what books CEOs are reading. It turns out Eshelman prefers mysteries, like the latest from Richard North Patterson.

As fascinating as that is, it might also be worth finding out why Eshelman is spending millions of dollars spreading lies about a candidate’s tax proposals and why two normally reasonable state legislators are involved in it.

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