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3 Perdue backers plead guilty to misdemeanors

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Charles Michael Fulenwider Charles Michael Fulenwider
RALEIGH, N.C. -

Three former Gov. Beverly Perdue's supporters agreed to pay fines Wednesday, wrapping up a long-running probe into undisclosed benefits to the Democrat's 2008 campaign, a prosecutor said.

Accepting plea bargains were Trawick "Buzzy" Stubbs Jr. of New Bern, a longtime Republican and law partner of Perdue's deceased first husband, and former state magistrate Robert Caldwell of Morganton. The deals reduced their charges from felony to misdemeanor obstruction of justice. They were accused of hiding the source of money used to pay for chartered plane flights Perdue took in 2007 and 2008. Stubbs was fined $5,000 and Caldwell $500.

Morganton fast-food restaurant owner Charles Michael Fulenwider pleaded guilty after funneling $32,000 to a Chapel Hill financial firm to help pay a Perdue fundraiser's salary. He apologized for his actions and was fined $5,000.

None of the men gained financially or professionally from helping Perdue's campaign, defense lawyers and Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

"I've observed that in politics, otherwise absolutely law-abiding, responsible, rational people do incredibly stupid, irresponsible, and irrational things," Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens said. "Will I do anything today that I believe honestly will cause me not to have to make the same speech two years from now as we walk into a new election cycle? Absolutely not."

Willoughby said he did not expect any further charges coming from the State Bureau of Investigation probe of Perdue's campaign finances.

Stubbs, 70, was accused of paying for more than $28,000 worth of private flights for Perdue through his law firm and then lying about it.

Stubbs arranged for 10 charter flights in 2007 and 2008 at the request of Perdue's campaign and paid for them with the intention of being reimbursed from campaign funds, SBI agent Blane Hicks testified. But as bills mounted beyond campaign contribution limits to the Perdue campaign, Stubbs sought to convert it into a contribution to the state Democratic Party, which had higher contribution limits, Hicks said. The party rejected the contribution in October 2008 because the money had already been spent on Perdue's campaign, Hicks said.

Fulenwider, 65, funneled $32,000 in 2007 and 2008 to secretly pay part of Perdue fundraiser Juleigh Sitton's salary during the Democrat's successful gubernatorial campaign. Fulenwider had already donated the maximum allowed to Perdue's campaign when the scheme was hatched to support Sitton with money moving through the Chapel Hill financial firm of Peter Reichard, Perdue's former finance director.

Fulenwider, who owns all or part of about 75 restaurants in western North Carolina and northern Georgia, also played a role in the investigation into unreported Perdue private flights.

Fulenwider arranged two flights for Perdue that complied with election laws, but after contributing the maximum $4,000 to her campaign, needed someone else to pick up the tab for a third, SBI agent Kanawha Perry testified Wednesday.

Fulenwider turned to his friend Caldwell, who asked his Morganton barber to make a campaign donation to Perdue. Caldwell then reimbursed the barber with an envelope of cash he got from Fulenwider to cover the $3,000 charter flight, Perry testified. Caldwell, 74, was charged after hiding the source of money used to pay for the flight.

Sitton is a Morganton lawyer who later became director of Perdue's Western Office in Asheville at a $50,000-a-year state salary. Sitton pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in the case.

Reichard accepted criminal responsibility for an obstruction of justice count through an Alford plea, in which a defendant does not admit guilt but concedes there is enough evidence for a conviction and is sentenced as if guilty. He was fined $25,000.

Perdue's campaign committee said when Reichard was sentenced in December 2011, it had forfeited $32,000 in funds because it recognized the payments as an unlawful benefit. Perdue, a Democrat facing sagging poll numbers, announced six weeks later that she wouldn't run for a second term, scrapping a potential 2012 rematch against 2008 GOP nominee Pat McCrory.

McCrory defeated Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton last November.

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