Robert “Robin” Hayes, former chairman of North Carolina’s Republican Party, leaves a federal courthouse in Charlotte on Oct. 2. (John D. Simmons/The Charlotte Observer/AP)
A former Republican congressman who chaired the North Carolina GOP until this spring pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to the FBI while the bureau investigated an alleged bribery scheme that has roiled the scandal-plagued state party.
Robert “Robin” Hayes’s plea deal requires him to cooperate with federal prosecutors and potentially testify against three other men indicted with him in March, according to documents. Hayes, 74, was accused of participating in a plot to bribe a state insurance commissioner with $2 million toward a reelection campaign — in exchange for the removal of another official involved in the regulation of GOP donor and co-defendant Greg Lindberg’s private-equity company, according to the indictment.
Hayes initially faced three counts of making false statements, as well as conspiracy and bribery, and he and his three co-defendants all pleaded not guilty at first. But with Wednesday’s plea agreement, Hayes admitted to lying to federal agents in August when he said he had never talked with the insurance commissioner about “personnel or personnel problems” or about his co-defendants Lindberg, founder and chairman of the firm Eli Global, and John Gray, a consultant.
“Today was a big step forward,” Hayes’s attorney Kearns Davis said in a statement Wednesday. “Robin looks forward to completing this process and moving ahead.”
Hayes still faces up to six months in prison, but the plea deal could mean that he emerges from the bribery scandal with no jail time, former FBI official and Charlotte lawyer Chris Swecker told the Charlotte Observer. Plea documents say the government intends to “recommend a sentence at the low end of the applicable guideline range.”
“It’s a real astute, savvy move on [Hayes’s] part,” Swecker said, according to the Observer.
The March indictment, which also names Eli Global executive John Palermo, describes a May 2018 phone call with Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey in which Hayes allegedly mentions millions of dollars pledged by Lindberg and Gray, along with their desired staffing change.
“There were some personnel issues,” Hayes told Causey, according to court documents, going on to reference a woman whom “they would like to see put back into that department to make sure that things got done that needed to get done.”
Lindberg, Gray and Palermo still face bribery and conspiracy charges, according to the Justice Department. Their trial was set to begin Nov. 18, but attorneys for Gray and Palermo have sought a delay until February to provide more prep time for what the lawyers called an “unusual and complex” case, according to the Observer. The case reportedly involves more than 2 million pages of documents.
Hayes is a one-time gubernatorial candidate who represented North Carolina’s 8th Congressional District for a decade through 2009. He chaired the state GOP from 2011 to 2013 and from 2016 to this year. His bribery indictment in spring came on the heels of another scandal for Republicans in the state: Less than two months earlier, North Carolina officials had ordered a redo of a congressional race after evidence of ballot-tampering tainted GOP candidate Mark Harris’s victory.
“It’s become clear to me that the public’s confidence in the 9th District-seat general election has been undermined to an extent that a new election is warranted,” Harris acknowledged at the time.
Hayes weighed in as GOP chairman to say that the state party backed Harris’s decision to support a redo.
Republicans narrowly retained the seat in a special election last month, as new candidate Dan Bishop pulled about two percentage points ahead of his Democratic rival in a district that President Trump had won by 12 points in 2016.