The notorious career of political consultant Chris Church
Game called.Upon the fi eld of life the darkness gathers far and wide, the dream is done, the score is spun that stands forever in the guide.
Nor victory, nor yet defeat is chalked against the player’s name. But down the roll, the final scroll, shows only how he played the game.
— Grantland Rice
Dr. Bruce Peller, a Democratic candidate for the 5th Congressional District in northwest North Carolina, had been confronted about his name being listed on an endorsement flier produced by a shady outfit called the Forsyth Leadership PAC.
It wasn’t just some of the poll workers’ aggressive tactics of approaching voters inside the no-campaigning zone at the early-voting site at the Forsyth County Government Center — which was illegal. More galling, other candidates and campaign volunteers had witnessed the poll workers misleading voters by telling them that the candidates listed on the flier were “the Democratic candidates,” falsely implying that their opponents were Republicans. To make matters worse, one of the candidates on the flier — seeking a district court judgeship in a nonpartisan race — was a registered Republican.
Peller, a Forsyth County resident with a dental practice in Winston-Salem, would have had a difficult time feigning ignorance about the political action committee: Another candidate had disclosed that Chris Church, a political consultant serving as Peller’s campaign manager, had solicited him for funds to support the effort. Church had admitted to being a consultant to the committee, but all evidence suggests that in fact he orchestrated the project. He also paid himself handsomely for his effort. Heather Moore, the treasurer and purportedly the person directing the committee’s activities, is incongruously a registered Republican whose most recent voting record is in another county.
After considering the situation over the next couple days in late April, Peller decided to publicly distance himself from the committee.
Church attempted to assuage the concerns of the candidate’s wife, Dr. Paula Henao. Church told Henao that Moore refused to remove her husband’s name from the flier and that “he should really take advantage of the opportunity.” The political consultant offered as references three of the other candidates listed on the flier: Earline Parmon, a candidate for NC Senate and veteran state lawmaker; Everette Witherspoon, a candidate for NC House and Forsyth County commissioner; and Jerry Jordan, the Republican candidate for district court judge.
“Earline understands why Bruce has concerns; he has no experience with the process and just doesn’t understand how things operate,” Church wrote in a text message to Henao. “But maybe he should even call Heather, Earline, Everette and Jerry…. None of them have a problem being associated with me or the PAC… because they want to win.”
Peller would not be mollified. He fired his campaign manager about two weeks before the primary. But Church tried to salvage the situation by appealing to the candidate’s wife.
“He was just going over and over and telling me all the people he knows and how it would be a waste if we didn’t use him,” Henao said. “He said his only motivation is to win. He doesn’t care what he has to do. He only wanted to win. He said he has connections in every single county and friends in every single county.”
Politics being a generally sleazy business but one that is concerned with maintaining an image of wholesomeness and virtue among candidates, few colleagues and former clients are willing to talk candidly or on the record at all about Church. Conversations with associates who were reluctant to talk about Church on the record present clashing impressions of masterful practitioner of the political dark arts, a common grifter or sloppy, disorganized businessman, albeit with occasional flashes of generosity and inspiration.
“He said, ‘I will do absolutely everything I need to do as long as it is not illegal,’” Henao recounted, demonstrating the air quotes she said Church made when he said the word “illegal.” “People hate me and I have plenty of charges, but I have been cleared because they cannot prove anything.”
The part about being cleared wasn’t true, but counts as a testament to his guile.
The trail of criminal charges, aggrieved former clients and official election inquiries related to Church since at least 2007 is extensive and varied. As someone with a reputation for showing up in town suddenly, Church is prone to disappear just as quickly. His Facebook page lists Winston-Salem as Church’s current residence, but recent campaign correspondence indicates that he lived in his native Wilkes County as recently as last December. He’s worked for upwards of a dozen candidates, including aspiring state legislators, judges and city council members at least as far west as McDowell County and as far east as Wake County.
With thinning blond hair, rectangular glasses and a toothy smile, Church looks both older and younger than his 31 years. During hearings about the Forsyth County Board of Elections about alleged election law violations in early 2011, he sat in the front row in a sheepskin-lined, denim jacket with arms crossed and an amused look on his face.
Among young Democratic operatives in North Carolina, Church is not among the fastest rising stars. For example, a former business partner, Conen Morgan, worked as political director for Cal Cunningham’s 2010 US Senate campaign and managed Bob Etheridge’s recent gubernatorial campaign. A 2004 graduate of NC State University, Morgan acknowledged working with Church in late 2009 and early 2010, but declined to discuss the circumstances of their parting.
“He is a smooth operator,” Melba Jones, chair of the Ashe County Democratic Party, said of Church. “He can lead you to believe he’s going to turn the world around. He knows a lot about politics. I’m pretty sure he could have gone far.”
A geographically vast county that shares the Appalachian ridgeline with neighboring Ashe County and is midway between Winston-Salem and Boone, Wilkes is a destination for Americana music fans making the annual pilgrimage to MerleFest, the music festival established by the late and legendary Doc Watson. It’s also a Republican stronghold where voters favored John McCain to Barack Obama more than two to one in 2008.
Church, who could not be reached for comment for this story, cuts an interesting cultural and political profile. In a YES! Weekly guest editorial he advocated simultaneously for single-payer healthcare and cracking down on illegal immigration. His Facebook likes include televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, the Poker Players Alliance and Wal-Mart.
Reacting to former Democratic Congressman Bob Etheridge’s manhandling of two Republican provocateurs in June 2010, Church posted on Facebook: “I’d do the same thing if someone put a camera less than 6 [inches] from my face, asked me a stupid question, and never identified himself… s***, I’d do worse.”
Montica Talmadge, who worked on campaigns with Church in 2010, said in an e-mail: “Chris is a good guy who loves his mom, sister and niece more than anything else on this big, blue planet. I hope that he can get everything straightened out sooner rather than later.”
During a live-blog chat hosted by the Blue NC website in January 2011, Church described himself as “a longtime friend” of David Parker, who went on to win election as chairman of the NC Democratic Party. Parker could not be contacted for this story.
Jones, the Ashe County Democratic Party chair, discovered that Church would cut corners to ingratiate himself with the Parker campaign.
“He had told David Parker that I had endorsed him,” Jones recalled. “I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I just do not do that being party chair. I don’t have anything against David Parker, and actually we’ve gotten to be good friends. When David Parker said he appreciated my endorsement, I said, ‘I am sorry. I just do not do that.’ He said Chris had given me his name. He said, ‘Evidently I don’t know Chris Church.’ I said, ‘I don’t think you do.’ I think he hoped I would let him leave it on. And I said, ‘I want my name off.’” Peller said Church appeared to know that he had filed to run for Congress before anyone else.
“He wove a tangled web of subtle lies that had just enough truth to be plausible,” Peller said. “For the first two weeks he talked about how Carissa Joines was going to quit Elisabeth Motsinger’s campaign and work for him. Of course, that never happened.”
In fact, Joines had been discontented with the Motsinger campaign, and would end up leaving before the primary, but Peller would learn later learn that Joines’ distaste for Church was profound.
Jones and others said Peller was warned about Church, but the former congressional candidate said that, to the contrary, Democratic activists avoided him after he hired Church because of a purported oath of neutrality so as not to be seen as showing favor over primary opponent Elisabeth Motsinger.
Jones said Eva Ingle, a Democratic activist from Wilkes County, warned Peller about Church during the annual FDR Dinner hosted by Ashe County Democratic Party in March.
“She was shocked when she heard Dr. Peller had hired him,” Jones said. “She took it upon herself to warn him. She took me aside later and said, ‘I just want you to know that I gave him your name as someone he should contact.’ That’s as far as it went. He never did contact me.”
Peller said that while he remembers his conversation with Ingle, he does not recall her suggesting that she talk to Jones or anyone else.
Church’s legal troubles began before he even made a name for himself in North Carolina politics. He was arrested in August 2008 and charged with four counts of obtaining property by false pretense through insurance schemes the previous year in Guilford County in which he allegedly misrepresented himself as the agent of record and forged customers’ signatures. Church pled guilty to all four counts on April 10, less than a month before the 2012 primary.
Peller confirmed that there is an ongoing criminal investi gation into Chris Church related to the financial transactions of the campaign.
Acting as treasurer of Peller’s campaign, Church wrote a check in early March for $620 to Heather Moore, the treasurer of the Forsyth Leadership PAC. Peller said he did not authorize the payment and does not know what it was for, although Church wrote in the memo line that it was a repayment for printing. Two months later, Moore in turn would contribute $700 to the Forsyth Leadership PAC.
“Based on what’s transpired over the past week, I felt there was a robbery in progress,” Peller said around the time he fired Church.
Months before Peller hired Church, Winston-Salem political circles were abuzz with rumors that the consultant had embezzled from the campaign of Carl Parrish, a candidate for Forsyth County superior court judge.
The Parrish campaign’s 2011 year-end, semi-annual report reflects 85 separate payments to Church over a period of five weeks from late November through Dec. 30, 2011. A Dec. 15 check for $3,547 is explained as being for maps and for Church’s consulting fee for two months. The remaining expenditures, which vary in amount from $2.50 to $510 and total $6,383, are itemized on the report as “fundraising?” The question mark indicates uncertainty about the actual use of the funds.
“We have no comment due to the fact that it is an ongoing police investigation,” Melodie Parrish, treasurer for the campaign, told YES! Weekly.
Parrish withdrew from the race in March after declaring that he could not meet the residency requirement for the judgeship. The campaign reported that it refunded $9,200 to 27 contributors in April, and that the candidate loaned the campaign $9,373, which remains outstanding.
When Church signed on with Parrish, he was fresh off a campaign with Jun Lee, a candidate for mayor of Knightdale, a town in eastern Wake County.
The Wake County Board of Elections discovered that dozens of absentee ballots had been mailed to Black Belt World, the Tae Kwan Do studio owned and operated by Lee.
“Basically we’ve turned it over to the DA,” Wake County Elections Director Cherie Poucher said. “He had the forms all mailed to Black Belt World. When we questioned it, we were told it was a daycare center and every parent had a cubby, but then we started delving further and talking to each of the voters. That’s where we found in many instances — allegedly — this Chris Church would deliver ballots to their home addresses. In some instances, it was alleged that the voter completed the ballot, that Chris witnessed it and then put it in the mail.”
Poucher said that the board of elections interviewed “probably under five” voters who said their absentee ballots had been handled by Church.
State law declares it a Class I felony “for any person except the voter’s near relative or the voter’s verifiable legal guardian to assist the voter to vote an absentee ballot” and “for any person to take into that person’s possession for delivery to a voter or for return to a county board of elections the absentee ballot of any voter” unless it’s a near relative or legal guardian.
Lee told YES! Weekly: “I have no comment, and I’m not going to say anything to go against Chris Church.”
In 2011, Church was also accused of falsely certifying a campaign finance report as treasurer for Democratic Forsyth County Clerk of Court candidate Susan Frye.
Richard Bethune, treasurer for Republican opponent Jeff Polston, filed a complaint last July with the NC Board of Elections alleging that the Frye campaign and Church as its treasurer had filed a “false and frivolous” report. Bethune noted that Church filed a report on the deadline of Oct. 25, 2010 showing $0 in receipts and $0 in expenditures. “Mr. Church and Ms. Frye obviously knew this report was false,” Bethune wrote, “as the third quarter was when most of their money was raised and spent going into the November 2010 election.”
Bethune said Amy Strange, a campaign finance specialist with the state board, told him in early May that the board’s investigation was being expedited because of the negative publicity received by the Forsyth Leadership PAC and its getout-the-vote activities.
Kim Westbrook Strach, deputy director for campaign reporting, said last week the state board was attempting to obtain financial records from the Frye campaign.
Parmon has tried to distance herself from Church and the Forsyth Leadership PAC. After declining to return media phone calls in the aftermath of the scandal, she released a prepared statement five days before the primary “I want to reassure my constituency, colleagues and supporters that I had no knowledge of this PAC until I was approached by Chris Church, who contacted my campaign office, to request support of this PAC,” Parmon said. “At that time I was advised that the Forsyth Leadership PAC would be endorsing me as a candidate for NC Senate.
“My campaign has not provided any financial support to the Forsyth Leadership PAC,” she continued, “and my campaign has no direct involvement with the operational side of this PAC.”
Notwithstanding Parmon’s disavowal, Henao’s account of her conversation with Church while she and her husband were severing their relationship with the consultant suggests the state lawmaker was more involved in the effort than she wished to let on.
“Chris told me that if I had questions about anything about the PAC I needed to talk directly to Earline because she didn’t need any of her campaign officers involved,” Henao said.
Parmon’s assertion that she had no involvement with the operational side of the PAC is also challenged by the fact that both the Forsyth Leadership PAC and the Parmon campaign reported making payments to the same poll workers:
Michael Graves, Doris Nickerson, Tim Davis and Joel Rivera III. The Parmon campaign paid Ray Herrera $225 with the notation of “campaign serv.,” and Herrera was observed handing out the Forsyth Leadership PAC flier during early voting. The Parmon campaign deployed more than 40 poll workers on primary election day, paying a total of $4,110 for their labor, according to its most recent campaign report.
The two campaign were virtually indistinguishable on primary election day.
Chad Nance was working as a field coordinator for the Ed Hanes Jr. campaign and visited almost every polling place in NC House 72 District, which significantly overlaps the district in which Parmon was running, NC Senate District 32.
“And everywhere I went it was the same people who were handing out information in those districts for Parmon, John Gladman, Jerry Jordan, Everette Witherspoon and Linda Coleman,” Nance said. “And they were the same people handing out the Forsyth Leadership PAC flier. I never saw an individual just handing out Parmon campaign material.”
Parmon adamantly denied that the two campaigns were intertwined.
“Anybody that worked for the Parmon campaign only handed out Parmon for Senate materials,” she said.
The candidate acknowledged that the two campaigns hired some of the same people and said she gave Church a list of names.
“A lot of the people were homeless,” she said. “You can check back to 2010. I always try to hire people who need to work. They were in the shelter or they came in to sign up.”
Parmon also acknowledged that she asked Church to visit her campaign headquarters so he could teach her how to use VoteBuilder, a database the Parmon campaign had purchased from the NC Democratic Party.
“Everything I’ve asked him to do he has done it, in terms of assisting me in getting proper lists and contacting vendors and that sort of thing,” Parmon said.
Gardenia Henley, a former Democratic primary opponent who has extensively investigated irregularities in Forsyth County elections, characterized Parmon as the “ringleader” and instructor for a series of coordinated electioneering efforts.
The Forsyth Leadership PAC resembles previous efforts involving dubious political action committees and endorsement slates in Winston-Salem. Some of the shared hallmarks of the efforts include coordination among candidates, general targeting of African-American Democratic voters and the false pretense of a respected, independent group vetting and recommending candidates.
Strach, deputy director for campaign reporting, said last week that the NC Board of Elections, is attempting to obtain records for the Winston-Salem Black PAC as part of an investigation of the committee. During early voting in the 2010 primary, poll workers handed out an endorsement flier recommending Parmon for NC House, Witherspoon for Forsyth County Commission, Frye for Forsyth County Clerk of Superior Court and Jimmie Bonham for Winston-Salem/ Forsyth County School Board. At the time, the committee reported having no money and had been terminated by the state board of elections.
Witherspoon served as treasurer at the time. He told YES!
Weekly recently that he would not answer questions about any political action committees.
Parmon, Frye, Witherspoon and Bonham paid thousands of dollars to an entity alternately identified as CMC and CDC that maintained an office at the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building on East 5th Street in early 2010. It is unclear how the funds were spent because as a private business the entity is not required to report its expenditures.
Parmon defeated Democratic challenger Gardenia Henley in her NC House race, while Frye and Witherspoon upset Democratic incumbents respectively in their clerk of superior court and county commission races. Bonham was knocked out of contention in the primary.
A review of the committee’s reports by YES! Weekly found that $3,844 disappeared from the Winston-Salem Black PAC’s account based on a discrepancy in cash balances between May 2008 and February 2009, and that the NC Board of Elections notified the committee that it was being fined for failing to file two reports in late 2008. The board of elections warned the committee that if the fine were not paid, the matter would be turned over to the NC Attorney General for civil action. There is no documentation reflecting that a fine was paid, and a spokeswoman from the Attorney General’s office said the matter was never referred to the agency.
Witherspoon wrote the board of elections in August 2011 regarding the Winston-Salem Black PAC: “I am writing to inform you that I am closing the WS Black Political Action Committee. Before I took over we had twenty dollars in the account now we have a zero balance I do not know what happened to the money our last treasurer was Tanya Wiley.”
Wiley is a Winston-Salem consultant who provided media services to Parmon and Witherspoon, along with lieutenant gubernatorial candidate Linda Coleman, in the recent primary. Coleman’s name was listed on the Forsyth Leadership PAC flier, but has said she was not familiar with the committee at the time of its inception. Wiley told YES! Weekly recently that she would not be able to comment on the Winston-Salem Black PAC due to her preoccupation with an illness in the family.
County commission candidate Beaufort Bailey and others had questioned the payments to CMC/CDC during the 2010 primary, and in the run-up to the general election that year, the Citizens PAC was organized to perform the same function. The committee received funds from the Parmon and Frye campaigns, along with the NC Democratic Party, Linda Garrou for NC Senate, Jerry Herron for county sheriff and Ted Kaplan for county commission. The Frye campaign in particular funneled a total of $1,800 to the Citizens PAC from August through October, but as Richard Bethune noted in his complaint the campaign reported $0 expenditures on Oct. 25, 2010.
Parmon acknowledged that she and Church worked together in 2010, which she said was the first time she met him.
Kaplan was solicited first by Parmon and then by Church — who was officially working on Frye’s campaign — to financially support the effort officially known as the Citizens PAC.
“He was part of a campaign that Earline had [to] get minority voters to the polls, and Earline had asked that I contribute,” Kaplan recalled. “This is something that had been going on for years. Earline had asked for some extraordinary amount of money, maybe $15,000, and I said, ‘No way.’ This is a county commission race, and we don’t really raise that much money. We did contribute $1,500 to her campaign for a get-out-the vote effort in the minority community. Then, out of the blue I got an e-mail from Chris Church asking for an extraordinary amount of money that we had not understood or agreed to. I wrote him back and said, ‘I think you have misunderstood. I think you’ve got too many zeroes.’”
The Citizens PAC spent $1,553 with 5 Star Campaigns, Church’s political consulting business, for campaign literature and door hangers.
Kaplan would end up being unseated by Republican challenger Bill Whiteheart by a margin of 392 votes. Frye prevailed over her Republican opponent by 564 votes, or less than 1 percent, and Parmon and Garrou handily won their races, but Herron was defeated.
Jerry Jordan is no stranger to election controversy in Forsyth County, having served on the local board of elections until he cycled off last year as he prepared for his run for district court judge. As a member of the board of elections, he voted with the Democratic majority to dismiss a protest by Jeff Polston, the Republican candidate for clerk of court. Church attended the board hearing, along with Parmon, Witherspoon and Bonham.
Peller met Jordan at the outset of the dentist’s congressional campaign. Within 48 hours of filing, Peller said Church had introduced himself, successfully sold the candidate on his services, and set up campaign headquarters at the dental office. Jordan came by to see Church at the dental offices, and Peller said he took Jordan aside to ask him for a character reference on Church.
“Jerry was the person who told me Chris was an honorable person, he was smart, and I was lucky to have him working on my campaign,” Peller recalled.
Jordan is now providing legal representation to Church against allegations of wrongdoing by Peller. So close is the professional relationship between the two men that Church receives his mail at Jordan’s law office.
Peller’s brief congressional campaign is an object lesson in how much money can be burned through with such little effect when a candidate and consultant are working at cross purposes.
Peller has contributed a total of $31,000 to his congressional campaign according to his most recent report. More than $12,000 has been spent with 5 Star Campaigns, Church’s company. The campaign spent $3,281 for legal fees and $320 for strategic and public relations support in the aftermath of Church’s departure, in addition to $6,382 to print and mail postcards and $2,026 for robo-calls.
Worse than the expenditure of funds for Peller is a possible breach of protected patient information that took place during the campaign.
Peller alleges in a legal filing that Church “gained unauthorized access to patient lists and other confidential and protected patient data,” and Church’s “retention or distribution of such information could subject plaintiff to substantial penalties under federal privacy laws.”
Superior Court Judge Lindsay Davis ordered Church last week to destroy physical and electronic lists containing Peller’s patient information, and to not make any use of it, but denied a request by Peller to examine Church’s electronic storage to confirm that the information had been deleted.
“Mr. Peller comes into this court with unclean hands,” Jordan argued in court. “By that I mean that Mr. Peller, by his own testimony, was negligent and actually took part in e-mailing these lists to Mr. Church. Now he’s coming to court looking for an equitable remedy when he himself testified that he gave the lists to Mr. Church.”
Peller countered that the information e-mailed to Church was only names, addresses and phone numbers, and that at a later date he believes Church uploaded more sensitive data, including dates of birth.
“The main focus of Chris Church was putting together this PAC,” Peller said. “And the work he did for me was a subterfuge. His work for me dwindled. And then the last week he came to me and said, ‘You need to join this PAC’ — for $8,000. I asked him how he came up with the $8,000 he was going to charge me. He said [the total budget was] $26,000. Earline was putting in $7,500, Everette was putting in some money…. What was left over was my share. I was incredulous…. It’s like you’re scamming me to my face.”
In fact, the total budget for the project turned out to be less than $6,000, with only $1,380 to cover the cost of labor by poll workers and $104 for printing costs. The remainder — $3,896, not including the cost of printing flier — was paid out to Church in the form of consulting fees.
The effort does not appear to have unfolded exactly as planned. The committee had a $2,000 contribution in hand from Walter Dalton, now the Democratic nominee for governor, on April 18, one day before the start of early voting. (The Dalton campaign has said through a spokesman: “We are aware of Forsyth Leadership’s endorsement of the Dalton campaign. We encourage all individuals and groups engaged in political activities to follow state law and local rules and regulations as directed by the board of elections.”) Notwithstanding Church’s reported representation to Peller that Parmon and Witherspoon would be financially supporting the effort, no funds were forthcoming from the two campaigns.
The most recent report filed by the Forsyth Leadership PAC indicates that Jordan, the Republican candidate for district court judge, contributed $3,000 to the committee two days after a story in YES! Weekly exposed how poll workers misled voters.
Jordan indicated in an interview that he has no reservations about working with Church. “That was months ago,” he said in reference to his financial support for the PAC. “Okay?” He added that he was unfamiliar with Church’s insurance fraud conviction. “I don’t exactly know what it was,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me.”
The get-out-the-vote effort orchestrated by Church and the Forsyth Leadership PAC appears to have had mixed results: Parmon won her state Senate race by a landslide. The other local candidates on the slate, including Witherspoon and Jordan, were defeated. Dalton and Coleman vanquished their primary opponents with convincing leads, but they carried a majority of the state’s counties, so Forsyth turned out to be inessential to their efforts.
Peller also went down in defeat, losing by a margin of almost 40 percentage points and carrying only one county in the 5th Congressional District.
“I think the whole endeavor is corrupt,” he said before the primary. “I think that I’ve been manipulated and my campaign has been disabled because I’m not willing to be part of the corruption…. The willing volunteers that I gathered from my dental practice were treated dismissively and have drifted away from my campaign because they were ignored.”
Henao recalled that Church tried to persuade her to bring her husband back into the PAC by arguing that it would give him name recognition among African-American voters and would be tantamount to an endorsement by Parmon.
“He said, ‘For the amount of money that we were going to pay, that was nothing compared to the work everyone was doing,’” Henao said. “He had everything in place, and everything was set up to pay the poll workers…. It was all covered. That amount of money was nothing. We should be grateful that it was only that money. If I was willing to take the risk of losing without him we couldn’t win. I said, ‘Yes, we want to take that risk because we don’t like the way you operate.’”