N.C. political donor gets 7 years in prison

FILE - This undated file photo provided by Robert Brown Public Relations shows Greg Lindberg. U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn scheduled sentencing on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, for insurance magnate Lindberg, John Gray and former Rep. Robin Hayes for their roles in trying to bribe the state's top insurance regulator. (Robert Brown Public Relations/Greg Lindberg via AP, File)

CHARLOTTE — A major political donor convicted of attempting to bribe a North Carolina elected official to secure preferential regulatory treatment for his insurance business was sentenced Wednesday to more than seven years in prison.

Billionaire businessman Greg E. Lindberg was handed his sentence by U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn just hours after Cogburn gave probation to former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes for lying to FBI agents during the government’s investigation.

Hayes and Lindberg were among four people indicted in early 2019, accused of trying to give over $1.5 million to help state Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey’s 2020 campaign, in exchange for Causey removing an official in his department. Causey, who wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, alerted authorities and recorded conversations for them. Causey is running for reelection this fall.

Hayes, who was state Republican Party chairman at the time of the crime, accepted a plea agreement last fall and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

But the other three went to trial, and in March jurors convicted Lindberg, who founded Eli Global LLC, and company consultant John Gray of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud as well as bribery. The third person was acquitted.

Cogburn sentenced Lindberg to 87 months in prison for each of his two counts, with the sentences running concurrently. He also must pay a $35,000 fine. The judge late Wednesday also sentenced Gray to 2 1/2 years in prison.

The sentencing capped a dramatic descent for Lindberg, who made a splash with donations to political parties and committees in recent years.

A wealthy insurance and investment firm founder from Durham, the 50-year-old Lindberg had been among the state’s top political donors. He had given more than $5 million to state and federal candidates and committees since 2016, favoring Republicans but also giving to Democrats.

Prosecutors had asked for Lindberg to serve 14 years in prison and Gray 10 years, saying long sentences were necessary in part to deter similar criminal activity by others.

“The defendants’ sentences should reflect the seriousness of their conduct, which was as dangerous as it was brazen,” the U.S. attorneys wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

“Lindberg attempted to buy his regulator, plain and simple,” the memo continued, adding he remained “brazenly unrepentant.”

Lindberg’s attorneys had sought a 1- to- 2-year sentence, saying his culpability was overstated and pointed out the government’s recommendation was out of line with sentences for other recent honest-services fraud defendants. Gray also sought a much lower sentence.

Lindberg’s lawyers pointed out the needs of Lindberg’s children, which include a 1-year-old of which he is the sole parent, according to their memorandum.

Lindberg attorney Brandon McCarthy said after sentencing that it was “deeply disappointing” to see his client “penalized as a result of unfounded allegations.” He also cited Lindberg’s accomplishments as a father, civic leader and someone who helped the less fortunate through his business. Lindberg plans to appeal the conviction.

“No matter how you slice it, a political contribution is not a crime,” McCarthy said in a news release. “Seeking fair regulation is not a crime.”

The government’s sentencing recommendation for Hayes said he had agreed to help funnel money going to the state GOP to Causey’s campaign. But it recommended probation for Hayes, 75, because they said he admitted his crime, accepted responsibility and agreed to cooperate. Cogburn ordered Hayes to pay a $9,500 fine in addition to completing one year of probation.

According to prosecutors, transcripts of the recordings Causey helped make show Lindberg supporting the establishment of two independent expenditure committees funded with $1.5 million to support Causey’s campaign.

Lindberg’s companies included Global Bankers Insurance Group. It was Global Bankers that prosecutors said would have benefited by Lindberg’s actions in seeking a new regulator in Causey’s office. Eli Global is now known as Global Growth.

Hayes represented the 8th Congressional District from 1999 through 2008. He served as GOP chairman from 2011 to 2013, and then from 2016 to 2019. He also was a 1996 gubernatorial candidate.