North Carolina AG in legal bind amid probe over 2020 TV ad

Aug 10, 2022, 3:30 AM | Updated: 4:48 pm
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in favor of protecting abortion access during a n...

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein speaks in favor of protecting abortion access during a news conference at the North Carolina Department of Justice in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022. Stein, an abortion rights supporter, has voluntarily recused himself from his office's appeal in a case that could reinstate a 20-week abortion ban. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

(AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The campaign committee for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, facing trouble for a TV ad aired against a rival in 2020, plans to ask a federal court to block enforcement of a state law making it illegal to knowingly circulate false reports to damage a candidate’s election chances.

The notice of appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was filed Wednesday by the campaign’s attorney. It comes a day after a trial judge refused to bar Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman from potentially using the law to prosecute anyone over the disputed commercial. Lawyers for Stein have argued the law is overly broad and chills political speech.

By challenging the state law, Stein may put himself in a bind between his public duties and his political future. Stein’s campaign committee argues that the statute is unconstitutional, noting one of the attorney general’s chief jobs is to defend North Carolina laws in court. Stein, a Democrat, is a potential 2024 governor’s contender.

The law, which dates to at least 1931, makes it illegal to knowingly circulate false “derogatory” reports about candidates to harm them at the ballot box. Freeman’s investigation stems from a September 2020 State Board of Elections complaint about the ad, which was filed against Stein’s committee by his then-challenger, Republican Jim O’Neill.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles, in canceling her July 25 emergency order that had stopped the law’s enforcement, wrote Tuesday that the statute was permissible under the Constitution.

The ad talks about untested rape kits held by local law enforcement agencies, and a woman appearing in the commercial asserts that O’Neill “left 1,500 rape kits sitting on a shelf” in Forsyth County, where he’s been district attorney since 2009.

Stein’s committee and two other plaintiffs sued last month to attempt to the have the law struck down as Freeman’s office prepared to take its investigation of the commercial to a state grand jury, according to legal briefs. No one has been charged in the case, and it’s unclear who specifically would have been a possible target.

O’Neill has said the 2020 ad was false because police agencies, not prosecutors, are responsible for testing rape kits. Stein, who defeated O’Neill by fewer than 14,000 votes in November 2020, has defended the ad’s accuracy. He said it countered false accusations by O’Neill that he had failed to act on over 15,000 untested rape kits since becoming attorney general in 2017.

“The voters deserved to be informed about the differences between how my opponent and I handled this critical public safety issue,” Stein said in a statement Wednesday. “I am confident that this statute will ultimately be struck down and we will move forward.”

After a state election board investigation, the matter was forwarded to Freeman’s office, after which the State Bureau of Investigation interviewed Stein, members of his campaign staff and the woman in the ad, who also worked in the attorney general’s office, according to briefs.

Separately on Wednesday, the state Democratic Party wrote Freeman demanding that she investigate comments O’Neill made in the 2020 campaign’s final months that it alleges were also false and derogatory. Party attorney John Wallace pointed to statements O’Neill made to the media, one that he said alleged Stein had “done nothing about the rape kits” and another that alleged Stein had sued then-President Donald Trump over funding for a border wall with Mexico.

Freeman, herself a Democrat, “should apply equal protection under the law and open an investigation,” party spokesperson Kate Frauenfelder said.

In an emailed statement Wednesday evening, Freeman said the Democratic Party was requesting “unique treatment” but instead needed to follow the normal procedure in a campaign case by filing a complaint with the State Board of Elections.

Freeman recused herself from investigating Stein’s ad, leaving it with a senior assistant DA in her office. She said Wednesday her recusal would remain for any other 2020 attorney general campaign case. O’Neill didn’t have a comment Wednesday.

The law at issue is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 60 days in jail with fines. Someone with an otherwise clean record would avoid active time if convicted. Time may be running out on any prosecution, as the statute of limitations on the count is two years.

Another state law says a public official convicted of the misdemeanor at issue in the lawsuit must be removed from office by a judge. This directive appears to conflict with a provision in the North Carolina Constitution in which someone like the attorney general can only be thrown out of office through impeachment and conviction by the General Assembly.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


FILE - The OpenAI logo is seen on a mobile phone in front of a computer screen displaying output fr...
Associated Press

Musk, scientists call for halt to AI race sparked by ChatGPT

Are tech companies moving too fast in rolling out powerful artificial intelligence technology that could one day outsmart humans?
1 day ago
Associated Press

Starbucks leader grilled by Senate over anti-union actions

Longtime Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz faced sharp questioning Wednesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
2 days ago
FILE - The overdose-reversal drug Narcan is displayed during training for employees of the Public H...
Associated Press

FDA approves over-the-counter Narcan; here’s what it means

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved selling naloxone without a prescription, the first over-the-counter opioid treatment.
2 days ago
FILE - A Seattle police officer walks past tents used by people experiencing homelessness, March 11...
Associated Press

Seattle, feds seek to end most oversight of city’s police

  SEATTLE (AP) — The U.S. Justice Department and Seattle officials asked a judge Tuesday to end most federal oversight of the city’s police department, saying its sustained, decade-long reform efforts are a model for other cities whose law enforcement agencies face federal civil rights investigations. Seattle has overhauled virtually all aspects of its police […]
3 days ago
capital gains tax budgets...
Associated Press

Washington moves to end child sex abuse lawsuit time limits

People who were sexually abused as children in Washington state may soon be able to bring lawsuits against the state, schools or other institutions for failing to stop the abuse, no matter when it happened.
3 days ago
Three children and three adults were killed in a shooting at a private Christian grade school in Na...
Associated Press

Nashville shooter who killed 6 drew maps, surveilled school

Three children were killed in a shooting at a private Christian grade school in Nashville on Monday, hospital officials said.
4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.
Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.
SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!
safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.
Comcast Ready for Business Fund...
Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
North Carolina AG in legal bind amid probe over 2020 TV ad