The head of the North Carolina Democratic Party is facing questions about credit card charges made during a March trip to a Las Vegas casino to watch basketball games with his old college buddies.
Records obtained by The Associated Press show state Democratic Chairman Randy Voller made $3,327 in charges to Southwest Airlines and the Wynn Las Vegas Hotel on an American Express Business Gold Card embossed with his name and that of the North Carolina Democratic Party. He said he's paid off the balance in full.
Voller, a Pittsboro real estate developer with a recent history of financial problems, had asked for the card shortly after he was narrowly elected as chairman in February.
What Voller says he didn't know was that the business card was backed by the personal credit of then-Interim Executive Director Tammy Brunner. He had just decided to replace Brunner, whose employment ended two days later.
In an interview with AP, Voller said he believes a portion of the Vegas charges, including a $557 dinner at a restaurant within the casino, were justified because he asked friends from across the country to give to the party and was therefore networking with potential political donors. He was also accompanied by Jim Neal, a Chapel Hill Democrat and friend hired as a national fundraising consultant.
After questions arose about the trip, Voller said he used personal funds to pay off the entire $5,434 balance on the credit card on May 6. He still plans to list a portion of his costs for the Las Vegas trip as an in-kind donation from himself on the party's campaign finance disclosure report to the North Carolina Board of Elections.
"There were no party funds expended on any of that," Voller, 44, said of the Vegas trip. "I have fixed the situation."
The credit card charges are the latest dust-up for Voller, who the AP reported in February had $286,000 in liens filed against him by the state of North Carolina and IRS for back taxes and penalties. Voller said his family business was a casualty of the national economic downturn and that he is making regular payments toward his debts.
Earlier this month, Voller was forced to apologize after telling a group of Democratic women attending a banquet that Republicans are "raping" the state with their policies.
Voller said this week he is simply being aggressive in trying to remake and refocus a staid political party largely swept from power in the November election. Republicans now control the governor's mansion and both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
Many of the Democrats' traditional sources of political donations have dried up as their influence has waned. Those money woes are likely to be worsened if GOP lawmakers eliminate the option for North Carolina residents to donate a few dollars to the political party of their choice by checking a box on their tax returns. That nets Democrats about $1.5 million annually.
Voller said the money problems have prompted him to take cost-cutting measures at party headquarters, including replacing Brunner and eliminating two staff positions. He said he has also launched an audit of $800,000 in past credit card charges made by staffers and paid with party funds.
Voller suggested his Vegas charges were leaked in an attempt to quash that investigation.
He has made an annual March Madness trip for more than a decade to meet with friends from his time as a student at basketball-crazed Indiana University, he said.
"To make such a big stink over something that never cost the party a nickel and could have a big payoff if the people I met with decide to throw a fundraiser in their hometowns of San Francisco, Chicago, New York and so forth, it seems like cutting your nose off to spite your face," Voller said. "The real issues we need to look at are how much money did we spend in the past, what did we spend the money on, were we in the red and, if so, how do we fix it."
Voller said Neal accompanied him on the Vegas trip as part of his duties as a fundraising consultant. Neal did not respond to a message seeking comment. His consulting contract with the party pays him $7,000 a month, Voller confirmed, though only one payment has been made so far.
Brunner was named as the party's interim executive director after her predecessor was forced to resign in August amid allegations of sexual harassment involving a staffer.
Her lawyer, Jack Nichols of Raleigh, said he was not free to speak about the events surrounding Brunner's March 20 departure, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Democratic Party signed as part of a severance package. Nichols did confirm the charges on the AmEx Gold Card issued to Voller on Brunner's credit had been settled.
With Brunner gone, Voller named himself as interim executive director in addition to serving as chairman. He says he is accepting only $1 in salary while the search for a permanent replacement continues.
A group of Democrats recently signed a petition asking the party's senior leaders to remove Voller as interim executive director for what they say are violations of procedure and his efforts to solidify power by naming close allies to key positions.
That controversy intensified last week when Democratic strategist and media consultant Frank Eaton posted an online video questioning Voller's handling of party finances and the "bullying" of party staff. Eaton also made reference to the credit card charges from Vegas and pricey contracts awarded to Neal and public affairs consultant Michael Carmichael, calling for a "full investigation" by party leaders.
Eaton, who lives in Winston-Salem, said Tuesday that he takes no pleasure in calling out the chairman, but decided to step forward for the good of the party.
"There's very little room for error when it comes to public opinion on money in politics," Eaton said. "When you throw Las Vegas into the mix, things can get ugly quick. Democrats are stepping up to handle this ourselves because we're tired of it, too. "
Eaton has previously sought to become party chairman himself, but said Tuesday he is no longer interested in the job.