BY MICHAEL BIESECKER and MITCH WEISS
RALEIGH — N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory’s campaign is giving a $2,000 donation to charity after the money was linked to a man facing criminal charges related to Internet sweepstakes cafes, the second time his campaign has unloaded a contribution with ties to the gaming industry.
A growing number of such donations have been identified in recent weeks as going to North Carolina politicians.
McCrory spokeswoman Kim Genardo said Tuesday that the Republican governor’s campaign will give the $2,000 to charity, offsetting an Oct. 19 check from Sherry Upchurch of Ramseur. Her husband, Richard “Rick” Upchurch, was indicted in Ohio in May on charges related to allegations of laundering money from an illegal gambling operation.
Upchurch declined comment Tuesday, citing his coming criminal trial.
“There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to say, but it could be taken wrong under the circumstances,” Upchurch said. “Everything we’ve done is completely legitimate, I can say that. I wouldn’t go anywhere, try to do anything that would be committing a crime.”
McCrory’s campaign earlier disgorged $8,000 from Chase and Kristin Burns, an Oklahoma couple who are among 57 people indicted in Florida related to a chain of sweepstakes cafes affiliated with Allied Veterans of the World. Prosecutors said only about 2 percent of the $300 million raised through the charity actually went to help veterans.
McCrory received another $8,000 in October from John Patrick Fannin and his wife, who live in Little River, S.C., according to records reviewed by The Associated Press.
Fannin is also among the sweepstakes operators indicted by Florida prosecutors in the Allied Veteran’s case. Genardo said McCrory’s campaign will review those donations, too.
A new report by the campaign finance advocacy group Democracy North Carolina released to the AP on Tuesday shows at least another $50,000 that went to McCrory’s campaign from 11 people identified through state business filings and other records as sweepstakes operators.
Among them was William George of Rock Hill, S.C., who records show has been repeatedly arrested over the last two decades for gambling-related offenses.
He was convicted in North Carolina in 2001 for failing to register video games, illegally warehousing video game machines and allowing gambling in a public house.
Messages left for George were not immediately returned Tuesday.
The AP verified the donations Democracy North Carolina identified to McCrory’s campaign finance reports and also searched for cash distributed by the same individuals to other campaigns. All told, they gave at least $140,000 in political donations in recent years.
Those donations were part of a much larger flood of money from sweepstakes operators that quietly flowed into campaign accounts of North Carolina politicians from both parties during the state’s most recent election cycle. Lobbyists for the sweepstakes industry are gearing up to push for new legislation legalizing the cafes, which continue to operate in the state despite repeated attempts by lawmakers to shut them down.
“This industry has a long and sad history of engaging in pay-to-play politics and shoveling money into the campaign of key leaders who will do their bidding,” said Bob Hall, the director of Democracy North Carolina.
The Charlotte law firm where McCrory worked just before taking office in January, Moore & Van Allen, lobbied on behalf of Burns’ company, International Internet Technologies. McCrory, who is not a lawyer and has never registered as a lobbyist, said he had no contact with Burns.
Four lobbyists at the firm have resigned from representing IIT, including a man who previously worked as McCrory’s campaign spokesmen.
Records show Burns and his wife donated at least $230,000 to North Carolina political campaigns in the past two years, including $55,000 to groups affiliated with the North Carolina Republican Party and cash to more than 60 state lawmakers from both parties.
The haul made the Oklahoma couple the largest single donors to North Carolina legislative candidates in 2012.
Records show other sweepstakes operators also gave generously.
Upchurch and one of his co-defendants in the Ohio gambling case, Phillip Cornick of Jackson, N.J., and their wives gave at least $45,000 in political donations to North Carolina candidates and political committees.
The bulk of the money was sent after the pair, who prosecutors say own New Jersey-based gaming company VS2 Worldwide Communications, are accused of laundering gambling profits through numerous bank accounts, including one in Ukraine.
The week after her October check to McCrory, records show a $2,000 donation in the name of Sherry Upchurch went to the campaign of North Carolina House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, whom records show has been a frequent recipient of money from sweepstakes donors.
Tillis did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.
On Oct. 1, records show Cornick sent a $20,000 check to Real Jobs NC, a Republican-aligned group that spent heavily on political ads that aired in the run-up to the November election.
A disclosure report filed in June with the IRS lists wealthy GOP donor Art Pope as one of the group’s four directors. Following the election, McCrory named Pope as his chief state budget writer.
Pope said Tuesday he resigned from the Real Jobs board in September and that he has never heard of Cornick. He referred questions to Roger Knight, the group’s executive director.
Knight said Real Jobs returned the $20,000 check, as well as another $4,000 donation tied to VS2 Worldwide, days after they were received because the group became aware of the pending criminal charges in Ohio. State disclosure reports do not indicate whether the money was disgorged, but Knight provided a filing to the IRS confirming the money was returned before the election.