One of NC’s biggest political donors, in prison for bribery, wins new trial

·3 min read
Jeff Siner/jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

A Durham billionaire who had been convicted of attempting to bribe a top state official with the help of the North Carolina Republican Party was not given a fair trial, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Greg Lindberg was briefly North Carolina’s biggest political donor, before his arrest. He’s now two years into a seven-year prison sentence — but will get a new trial because of Wednesday’s ruling, along with his employee John Gray, who had been sentenced to 30 months in prison as part of the same scandal.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that when Lindberg and Gray were convicted of honest services fraud and federal funds bribery in 2020, the judge gave an improper jury instruction that went too far against their rights.

The appeals court vacated their convictions and ordered a new trial to be held.

It wasn’t immediately clear when — or if — that new trial might be scheduled. The government still has the opportunity to appeal the case further and try to get Wednesday’s ruling overturned.

Details on the Lindberg scandal, trial

The case revolves around Lindberg’s attempts to get N.C. Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, a Republican, to remove a regulator in Causey’s office who had expressed suspicions about some of Lindberg’s business practices in the insurance companies he ran.

Lindberg wanted Causey to replace that regulator with one of Lindberg’s own employees, or at least a different Department of Insurance worker whom Lindberg would personally choose. In return, he gave Causey’s political campaign roughly $250,000 worth of political support and offered millions more once the staffing change was made.

In North Carolina, individuals can only directly give politicians a few thousand dollars each election cycle. But political parties can give unlimited amounts, so Lindberg gave the NCGOP $500,000 with instructions to forward a large chunk of it on to Causey’s campaign — a fact Gray would later make sure Causey knew about, prosecutors said.

Lindberg also later spoke with Causey and offered to put between $500,000 and $2 million more into an outside political group that would support Causey’s reelection campaign, if Causey would get rid of the skeptical regulator and replace her with someone of Lindberg’s choosing.

Causey, unbeknownst to Lindberg, had gone to the FBI and started wearing a wire for their conversations — an act that led to Lindberg and Gray’s convictions. It also led to the conviction of the head of Causey’s own party, former U.S. Rep. and NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes.

Hayes was fined and sentenced to probation for lying to the FBI about his work with Lindberg but was later pardoned by Republican President Donald Trump. His case was not part of the ruling Wednesday, which focused only on the bigger convictions handed down to Lindberg and Gray.

A key element of proving any political bribery case is that it must revolve around an “official act” — which the U.S. Supreme Court has defined narrowly, in a controversial 2016 ruling that reversed the corruption conviction for the former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell.

At trial, attorneys for Lindberg and Gray wanted to use that 2016 precedent to argue that it would not have been an “official act” for Causey, the insurance commissioner, to remove and replace one of the top deputies in his department. The judge disallowed that argument, and instructed the jury that it would clearly be an official act.

But that was a flawed decision, the Court of Appeals ruled. In a unanimous opinion the three judges hearing the case wrote that it should have been up to the jury, not the judge, to decide.