Sep 10, 2004
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BY JOHN CHAPPELL: Staff Writer
Matthew Ryan (Matt) McWilliams accepted an unusual sentence Wednesday after changing his plea to guilty as part of a bargain with the state for violating election campaign laws.
McWilliams, who is a former vice chairman of the Moore County Republican Party, pleaded guilty to one count of felony obtaining money by false pretenses.
A Moore County Grand Jury indicted McWilliams on seven felony charges — five counts of obtaining money by false pretenses and two counts of perjury. He was accused of filing false reports with the state board of elections in connection with his run for the nonpartisan school board in 2002.
In Moore County Superior Court Wednesday, Judge Ron Spivey handed McWilliams a suspended sentence of six to eight months, with 90 days under house arrest.
McWilliams apologized in court after entering his guilty plea.
“I realize ignorance is no excuse,” he said. “I do believe I have learned a lot about politics and life in general. When you see a Pilot headline that says ‘McWilliams Indicted on Seven Felony Charges,’ if that doesn’t get your attention, I don’t know what can. I would like to apologize to Mr. Tutor and the state board for the trouble I caused them. I would still like to be able to serve the public.”
Spivey recessed the court for 10 minutes to consider the sentence. About 30 minutes later, he returned, saying that the decision took longer than he thought.
“Men and women have fought and died to ensure this free society and free elections and free speech,” Spivey said. “All of this you attempted to practice, then did so against the rules they fought for.
“They certainly didn’t give their lives over all these years for someone to use the blanket of free speech to harass or threaten others. They didn’t do these things to allow some to follow the rules and others not to. That is why you are here today.”
Citing the public nature of his offense, Spivey ordered McWilliams to do 48 hours of community service, pay a $200 fine, and reimburse the state $360 for the services of his court-appointed attorney, Bob Bierbaum.
Spivey then added an unusual condition to the sentence: McWilliams must watch what he says or writes during the term of his probation.
“This is one I sat back and tried to craft, because I want to recognize your First Amendment rights,” Spivey said. “As a special condition, I have ordered that you not contact either political candidates, or otherwise by telephone, Fax, e-mail, letter, or promulgate Web sites, signs or other mailings or other documents that would in any way harass or threaten others in any manner.”
Spivey referred to allegations by Assistant District Attorney Alan Greene that McWilliams made harassing telephone calls to opponents.
Rights Have Limits
Spivey gave McWilliams a stern lecture, guaranteeing his right of free speech but cautioning him such rights have limits.
“What I am telling you, so to be sure you understand this when you leave, is you certainly leave here with your First Amendment rights, as everyone who leaves this court does,” he said. “But you have got to temper that with the perception of others that your discourse may be harassing.”
A violation could land McWilliams in prison.
“If you wish to test that in any way, we will bring you back for a hearing, and if the court determines that it was threatening or harassing as those terms are defined in law, then the court could invoke your sentence,” Spivey said. “This could be as simple as removing a yard sign, or making a telephone call. It would be my personal belief that you need to be mighty careful during this period of supervised probation. It is my personal hope that we will not see each other again.”
Following Spivey’s ruling, McWilliams released a written statement — one of three he said he prepared in advance, deciding which he would release only after receiving his sentence.
“First of all, I want to thank my friends and family for sticking by me in this trying time,” he said in his statement. “It has been a stressful time for them and their support has been an amazing encouragement to me. I want to thank my attorney Bob Bierbaum for his tremendous help and professionalism in handling this matter. Furthermore, I want to offer my appreciation to the district attorney and his assistant Alan Greene for their fair handling of this case.
“The results of today guarantee that my family and I will avoid further hardship. The problems facing me have loomed large on my mind for the past four months and have been a strain on the professional and emotional well-being of my family and myself.”
McWilliams is looking forward to putting his offense behind him after he completes the terms of probation.
“Handling this in a prompt manner was first and foremost on my mind, and this was a solution that pleased both the district attorney and me,” the statement says. “I am thankful that this is behind me once and for all, and now I can move on with my life and my business.”
Outside court, he reiterated his apologies to the board, his friends and family, and his clients. He had no apology for political opponents, and denied harassing or threatening anybody in the telephone calls to which the judge referred.
“I don’t believe they were harassing,” he said. “I think that it was unfair that they chose this avenue to bring it up. They said I made harassing phone calls. I made argumentative phone calls. I get in arguments with my friends.
“The people I talked to — I have my suspicions, but I will go no further with this allegation — the person I think it was with regards to — made no statement to me that they were going to authorities with the messages.”
Regulations like the ones McWilliams ran afoul of are meant to keep political money in the public eye, said Glenda Clendenin, director of the Moore County Board of Elections.
“They can’t just go off on their own and try to affect the outcome of elections,” she said. “Whether it be for or against candidates or for or against issues, the public truly does want to know who is backing a particular candidate or what issue. If we can get everyone to understand that we need to disclose to the public where the money is coming from, and then let them make their decision on candidates and issues based on what impact that would have. A hundred percent feel that we should have full disclosure.”
The law bans anonymous political campaigning.
“People may walk into my office and say, ‘Glenda, I need to buy a list of voters,’ or ‘I need to buy labels.’ Of course, on our invoice we say to them that — according to campaign law — if you are doing this to support a position on a candidate or issue, you must report it to that campaign as an in-kind contribution.”
Strict regulations of political discourse is often a shock to people unfamiliar with the law.
“They will say, ‘I can’t believe I have to tell that candidate I spent this money,’” she said “But that goes toward the total amount of money you can give to a candidate.”
In the past, political parties could receive money aimed at general party business that exceeded individual campaign limits. A federal law, the McCain-Feingold reform bill restricted that so-called soft money in an attempt to get the influence of soft money out of the parties.
But it left open a door for nonprofit political groups — as defined by Section 527 of the tax code — to take big contributions, then spend that money on campaigns.
These “527 groups” are not supposed to coordinate their activities with candidates, though they often clearly take sides. The result can be virtually the same as if the party spent the money.
The law allows these contributions to remain anonymous. 527 groups do not have to disclose the names of donors.
That, said Clendenin, is the rub.
“People do have a right to know where the money comes from,” she said. “I think it is important that candidates realize that, if they want to serve the public they need to be honest in their disclosure.”
Can’t Claim Ignorance
McWilliams did not make investigation of his campaign finances easy, according to Marshall Tutor of the state elections board who handled this case.
“Obtaining records and following the paper trail was very time consuming,” Tutor said. “The campaign was totally disorganized. It was like putting a puzzle together.”
McWilliams could not claim ignorance, Tutor said.
“He had thorough training and direction from the Moore County Board of Elections, as all candidates,” he said. “I do think he did not realize the seriousness of these laws. Then, when he did realize, he was not as forthcoming and cooperative as he might have been.”
McWilliams apparently considered the investigation politically motivated.
“That was his contention, as much as anything,” Tutor said. “He did tell me that his entire campaign report was ‘a work of fiction’ in that he did not keep good records at all.”
But no opponent had any contact with the state board about McWilliams before the investigation started, according to Tutor.
“There was after, but not before,” he said. “The investigation really began when he filed papers to run for the House here in Moore County.”
McWilliams resigned as vice chairman of the GOP last year, announcing he intended to oppose state Rep. Richard Morgan in the 2004 primary.
Morgan, whose district encompasses most of Moore County, serves as co-speaker of the House of Representatives. Morgan has held the seat since 1990.
McWilliams’ challenge to such a powerful incumbent after losing a school board race surprised many.
“Glenda remembered his candidacy for the school board,” Tutor said. “She had had a tremendous amount of problems with him. She alerted our office to watch out for this guy, just keep a close eye on him. Here is what we did: we looked at the House campaign first of all. Then I went back, and our campaign finance people went back, and looked at the school board race — just to see what kind of things had transpired. That was it. There was nothing related to the House race.”
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