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NHCS Board Candidate Nelson Beaulieu files election complaint against Judy Justice

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New Hanover County Board of Elections / Ben Schachtman
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WHQR
From left to right - Nelson Beaulieu, Veronica McLaurin-Brown, Dorian Cromartie, and Judy Justice. These candidates are involved in Nelson Beaulieu's complaint to the State Board of Elections.

New Hanover County School Board Candidate Nelson Beaulieu, an incumbent, has filed a State Board of Elections complaint. He's alleging campaign finance violations on the part of fellow Democratic candidate Judy Justice.

Update - This article was updated Saturday, May 28, with comment from Veronica McLaurin-Brown.

Nelson Beaulieu’s complaint alleges that Justice’s first-quarter filing “failed to disclose donors and failed to report contributions made to other political committees.”

But Justice disagrees, “What was done on the campaign report, and in actuality was totally legal. It sounds like he's grasping at straws, because everything was done legally.”

What’s at the heart of this debate are printed palm cards. These cards — paid for by Justice’s campaign — have the names of Justice and candidates Dorian Cromartie and Veronica McLaurin-Brown. A social media version, distributed on Facebook, also had the three candidates' photos.

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Jen Mangrum, Facebook page
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Palm card paid for by Judy Justice Board of Education

Funding for the palm cards

One of Beaulieu’s main concerns is that Justice claimed on social media that former State Superintendent candidate Jen Mangrum had donated money from her campaign to fund the palm cards — but Justice’s campaign finances don’t reflect that.

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Justice's campaign reporting of the palm cards for quarter one.

While Justice did document a personal donation of $1,000 from Mangrum, Mangrum herself confirmed to WHQR that the donation was from her campaign fund, Jen Mangrum for NC. Because she is not in an active campaign season, Mangrum is not required to file a campaign finance report until the midyear — so there isn't a current document to review. However, it does appear the Justice filed Mangrum's donation incorrectly, based on Mangrum's statements.

In an interview, Beaulieu had also suggested it might have been a campaign violation if voters had donated to Mangrum with the expressed intent of passing that money to — or 'earmarking it' for — Justice. Beaulieu cited an online posting by Justice stating that the palm card money had come from "teachers through [Mangrum's] campaign funds.” However, while Justice may have been implying that, since teachers supported Mangrum, Mangrum's support of Justice carried that weight, WHQR has not been able to find any evidence of earmarking or 'donations in the name of another' — that is, evidence of Mangrum's donors specifically asking her to use their donations for Justice's campaign. In addition, Mangrum said it was solely her decision to donate to Justice, and that her finance committee advisors had vetted the donation.

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Justice's campaign listed Mangrum's $1,000 donation.

“I'm not sure what the confusion is. It's perfectly legal. That's what campaign donations are for, to be used to get you and those who you want to work with get elected,” said Justice.

In-kind donations?

Another layer of confusion involves whether McLaurin-Brown and Cromartie will have to report these cards as an in-kind donation from Justice on their filing forms since it could be argued they potentially benefitted from them in the campaign — so far, they have not included the cards in their filings, nor has Justice listed them as a donation.

“Not reporting an in-kind donation to those campaigns is unethical, because Ms. Justice’s campaign clearly donated to those campaigns,” said Beaulieu.

While Patrick Gannon, public information director for the North Carolina State Board of Elections (NCSBE), said the state can’t comment on specific cases, he said, in general, candidates are required to disclose in-kind contributions to their campaigns, including flyers, palm cards, or other advertisements that support multiple candidates that are paid for by someone else. But, importantly, they’re only required to report these if they coordinate with the person or committee funding those advertisements.

Justice said she, along with Cromartie and McLaurin-Brown all agreed about the cards — and that teachers are supportive of the three of them: “So it was an agreement, and it came out of my campaign because I have the money in the campaign. And there was no confusion.”

Cromartie confirmed he had coordinated with Justice on the cards; McLaurin-Brown responded to questions about the palm card with a statement: "This idea was promoted by Jen Mangrum. We will adhere to the State's ruling on this matter."

While a final decision would be up to the NCSBE, it does appear that, based on Gannon's explanation, the cards would have been in-kind donations from Justice to the two other candidates — which would require amendments to Justice's and McLaurin-Brown's filings. [Editor's note: Cromartie said his filing was complete, but had been held up by technical issues.]

Cromartie said he believes he’s in compliance with campaign finance rules, but, “if there is any violation of any rules, that my campaign that we will resolve those issues, move forward and continue to focus on the bigger picture issues, which is making sure that everyone in the county has a fair and equitable education.”

Justice agreed with Cromartie that she would make amendments if necessary: “Those campaign reports are very complex [...] I've never heard of them coming back with something that minute, but if they would like for that to be done and they asked for it, it would be very easy to do an amendment.”

In addition to campaign finance issues, Beaulieu is taking issue with the ‘teacher endorsed’ language on the palm card, saying: "So there is no evidence there is a group getting together and giving a certain amount of money for these cards, so this statement was kind of confusing."

Ethics complaint to the NC Democratic Party

Beaulieu said he also plans to file a complaint with the state Democratic party about people allegedly handing out sample ballots with his name crossed out on Election Day, implying that he wasn’t in the race.

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Nelson Beaulieu
Nelson Beaulieu saved an example of one of these sample ballots.

Beaulieu claims this was happening at precincts H10 and W29.

“There’s no legal mechanism to contest something like that, but I think it’s important to speak up about that because we have to hold ourselves accountable,” he said.

“And I think both of these incidents are attempts at deception. You know, to say, ‘Well, this person dropped out, or to say, we are 'teacher endorsed,’ with no actual group or meaning behind that, I think, is deceptive. And I think it's intentionally deceptive. And it's disappointing,” said Beaulieu.

As for the remedy he’s looking for from the state Board of Elections, Beaulieu said, “I would expect them to apply the law if they believe the law was broken.”

From the state Democratic Party, “I would leave the [remedy] to powers of the party, a formal censure could be warranted,” said Beaulieu. “If we don’t have ethics, if we don’t have integrity...and I think we have to call out [unethical] behavior when we see it loudly and aggressively.”

Justice said, “If he's upset about somebody crossing out his name, I could be upset because somebody scribbled everybody else's name and left mine off, but that's silly because that's politics.”

Cromartie and Justice both said they think Beaulieu’s complaints are an attempt to distract from his finishing toward the bottom of the Democratic candidates in the primary – and that they want to focus on the issues affecting New Hanover County Schools.

“The votes are a true reflection of where the school board is going and where people want to go when it comes to solving the challenges that our education system faces. [...] We have to fix these challenges and fighting each other is not going to fix anything. We got to focus on the bigger picture,” said Cromartie.

“My agenda is to make sure the kids can do the best can possibly can at our schools – and that the staff who supports them gets everything they need to do that, that’s what I’m focused on,” said Justice.

Beaulieu said he knows these complaints can’t help him politically, but “this is about how we behave as Democrats and whether or not it’s okay for somebody to intentionally mislead voters.”

The state Board of Elections will have the final say on this case — and the proceedings will be confidential.