by Bob Geary
Updated at 5pm Thursday, April 24:
Updated X 2 at 12 noon, April 26 — with the text of a Zellinger campaign email sent Thursday night. It's copied at the end of the original post. Also, Dana Cope of SEANC called, objecting to my statement that SEANC's attacks on Freeman are in retaliation for her criticism of his organization's connection to Purchasing Power. "That's not why we're in this race at all!" Cope said, adding that Purchasing Power is "wildly popular" with his members. Cope insisted SEANC's interest in the Wake DA's race is because the Wake DA has jurisdiction over political corruption cases originating in state government. Cope also denied that SEANC's attacks implied that Freeman is corrupt. I'll consider this subject again when I write my column for the print edition of Indyweek, which comes out Wednesday. — BG
The original post follows —
I've been watching this story unfold for a week. Things are breaking now — here's an outline:
1) The State Employees Association of North Carolina (SEANC), through its political action committee, endorsed Boz Zellinger in the Democratic primary for Wake County District Attorney. Zellinger is an assistant Wake DA.
2) SEANC has mailed two thoroughly scurrilous flyers to its members attacking Zellinger's opponent, Lorrin Freeman. The flyers stop just short of saying that Freeman, the sitting Clerk of Superior Court for Wake County, is corrupt. In fact, the corruption to which the flyers refer came to light because Freeman did the right thing.
3) Numerous Democrats have called on Zellinger to disown these attacks. He has declined to do so — for a week — saying that he had nothing to do with them. [See the update below: Zellinger just told me he dislikes SEANC's "tactics."]
Today, former Wake DA Colon Willoughby joined those calls, denouncing the SEANC attacks as "deceptive and dishonest" and, later, "scurrilous."
I tried to reach Zellinger today. He hasn't returned my call nor, to my knowledge, issued any statement. if he does, I'll update.
[Update, 5 p.m. Zellinger called just after I posted this. He said he dislikes SEANC's tactics, and "I strongly disagree with any assertion that [Freeman} is responsible for these felonies." He did "question whether there should've been procedural safeguards" to prevent such crimes — Willoughby said the real weakness is a systemic one of outdated technology in the courts for which Freeman isn't responsible.
Zellinger insisted that he can't control what SEANC says, which is true. He added that SEANC's support "means a lot to me."
Zellinger said he's surprised that I or anyone else would hold him responsible for SEANC's mailings, and he's frustrated to have his integrity questioned because of attacks "I had nothing to do with."
That's essentially what he said at a forum with the Wake Democratic Women the other day. After Freeman called on him to repudiate SEANC's ads, he followed her and responded that he wasn't responsible for what SEANC was doing.]
What does SEANC have to gain by endorsing in a primary for Wake district attorney?
SEANC promotes a for-profit company, Purchasing Power, to its members; the company arranges for members of groups like SEANC to buy products and pay over time — through payroll deduction — at much higher prices than the same products cost when purchased in a store.
SEANC makes a lot of money by its association with Purchasing Power — $288,000 a year, according to a SEANC document I've seen, less the cost of a staffer to manage things. Freeman was publicly critical of SEANC's association with the company last year for taking unfair advantage of people. Some of Freeman's employees in the clerk's office are SEANC members.
SEANC is retaliating against Freeman, plain and simple.
This morning, Freeman issued a statement calling on Zellinger to disown the SEANC attacks and repudiate SEANC's support. Frankly, I don't know why she didn't do so sooner — but now she has.
Also today, former Wake DA Willoughby, who stepped down from the job a few weeks ago, called SEANC's attacks on Freeman "scurrilous." Also, "deceptive and dishonest." He said Zellinger should tell SEANC to stop.
Willoughby told me he's not endorsing in the primary. Both Democratic candidates are good lawyers with good skills and character, he said. Two other assistant DA's are running for the Republican nomination.
Colon Willoughby's reputation for integrity is impeccable. Zellinger should heed his advice.
I called Zellinger at noontime to ask if he plans to respond to Freeman and/or Willoughby. No answer so far.
This week, the Indy, too, endorsed Zellinger, citing his record as a trial attorney under Willoughby. The ability to try cases is important to a DA. So is the DA's judgment. Zellinger's passive stance while SEANC viciously and unfairly attacks Freeman is weak.
I just edited that last sentence a bit and dialed it back a notch. Zellinger and I talked a bit about what his responsibilities ought to be when supporters make deceptive claims. To me, when they're supporting you, you own what they say unless and until you reject it. In other words, you're known by the company you keep.
Here, for the record, is the latest SEANC attack flyer:
[Update x 2— the text of the Zellinger campaign email sent to supporters Thursday night. For the record:
Yesterday I was endorsed by the Independent Weekly. The day before, I was endorsed by the NC Sheriff and Police Alliance. Our campaign is surging, and Wake County is excited about my progressive plan for the DA’s Office.
Recently my opponent attacked me in an effort to change the focus of this election from my plan for our criminal justice system to the tactics of the State Employees Association. As a prosecutor, I work every day with state employees throughout our courthouse, and I care deeply about their lives and keeping our community safe. Instead of discussing Wake County’s burgeoning gang problem, or who law enforcement trusts to keep our community safe, she has attacked not me, but a group that endorsed me. It is unfortunate that she is attempting to turn this election into a game of politics as usual.
The State Employees Association utilized political advertisements that could lead voters to think that Ms. Freeman is involved in the embezzlement scandal in the clerk’s office. This was criminal activity, and Ms. Freeman was not personally involved. I know Ms. Freeman, consider her a friend, and don’t believe she had any role in criminal activity.
It is appropriate, however, to ask whether there were safeguards in place to make sure this conduct didn’t happen in an office that handles large sums of money. It is appropriate to ask why they didn’t exist. It is appropriate to ask whether Ms. Freeman conducted an internal investigation, and what changes were made.
It is a legitimate question voters want answered in determining Ms. Freeman’s ability to lead an office. It is also unrealistic to think that this wouldn’t be a question voters have on their minds. It is inappropriate to demean the character of anyone asking this question.
Tonight I spoke at a Democratic Women event on Human Trafficking, which is an issue I care passionately about. Tonight in our county two thousand homeless school children face uncertainty. Tonight in our county someone will be the victim of violent crime. I am the candidate who has a plan to address these issues. I am the candidate who can keep our community safe. I am the candidate who can, and will, win in November.