Little-known investor gives millions to N. Carolina politics
By GARY D. ROBERTSON
Feb. 09, 2018
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's newest and biggest political spender is a private investment firm founder and a virtual unknown in state politics who's saying little for now about his reasons for quickly giving millions to help influence elections.
Greg Lindberg, founder and chairman of Durham-based Eli Global, gave more than $3.4 million to state campaign and independent expenditure committees last year, according to campaign finance reports.
Lindberg's donations make him the highest donor in state politics, an Associated Press analysis shows.
His donations come as North Carolina legislative and courts races receive national attention from out-of-state donors. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is leading a group targeting North Carolina House and Senate races this fall, with the hope of taking back the chambers held by Republicans most of this decade before the next redistricting begins in 2021. More than $40 million was spent on the 2016 governor's race by the campaigns of Cooper and Republican incumbent Pat McCrory; Republicans are eager to win the post back in 2020.
Almost all of Lindberg's 2017 donations went to three Republican-leaning groups. The total is more than what was raised by either major political party in the state or Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper that year — mostly a nonelection year except for municipal races.
A lot of that money could wind up helping Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a Republican hoping to challenge Cooper in 2020. Lindberg also previously gave donations totaling six figures to a group designed to help a key Democrat whose department regulated an industry that includes companies owned by Lindberg's firm.
Lindberg was by far the state's top giver in 2017, based on the AP's analysis of data from the state elections board website showing identified donors and their contributions to candidate, party and independent committees. The numbers didn't include contributions of $50 or less — committees aren't required to make those donors' names public.
"It's eye-popping the amount of money that he's laying out," said Bob Hall, the recently retired executive director of election reform group Democracy North Carolina. The next-highest donor is a legislative candidate, loaning his own campaign $500,000.
Lindberg, 47, is largely unknown outside the business realm. Past and present campaign consultants in the state declined to comment about him or said they didn't know much about him.
"I've not met him. I've not come across his name before as a donor," said Scott Laster, a former executive director at the state Republican Party and ex-political strategist for state House Republicans.
Some details emerge from a biography on Lindberg's website chronicling his leadership of a company that's closed more than 100 acquisitions since 2001.
The biography calls Lindberg the proud founder of his California high school's newspaper and "a strong believer in the freedom of the press," but a company spokesman said Lindberg isn't doing news interviews now.
Lindberg attorney Aaron Tobin said in a statement that his client will continue "to support in a nonpartisan way candidates that are in tune with the issues affecting North Carolina businesses and its citizens. Mr. Lindberg has given to organizations that support strong candidates on both sides of the aisle."
Records show Lindberg is registered as unaffiliated and voted in North Carolina's 2016 general election but not in a party primary. Lindberg's biography identifies him as "bootstrap entrepreneur" who isn't interested in selling companies Eli Global has invested in, ranging from health care software provider Eye Care Leaders to sports card collectible company Beckett Media.
"We partner with great leaders and step out of their way," Lindberg is quoted as saying. His biography said he founded a political satire magazine while attending Yale University, from which he created a newsletter for home health agencies that became the basis for Eli Global.
After making a few smaller political donations this decade, Lindberg's giving soared in 2016 when he sent $350,000 to the independent NC Opportunity Committee, which ran ads supporting Wayne Goodwin, then the state's Democratic insurance commissioner.
Several insurance companies and acquisitions are included in Eli Global's portfolio.
Goodwin's re-election campaign also received nearly $10,000 from Lindberg during 2016, according to campaign reports.
Republican Mike Causey, who defeated Goodwin in November 2016, said his campaign decided to return a $5,000 Lindberg donation last year "out of abundance of caution" because Lindberg has five companies regulated by the department.
"I was not familiar with him until I became insurance commissioner," Causey said. Goodwin's now the state Democratic Party chairman.
Last year, Lindberg gave the state Republican Party $890,000, making him that party's largest individual donor in 2017.
He gave a total of $2.4 million to the Republican Council of State Committee, an organization backing GOP candidates for executive statewide office, and Truth and Prosperity, which promoted Forest during his winning 2016 re-election campaign. Lindberg's were the only donations the groups received in 2017.
Giving large sums to influence down-ballot races isn't unusual in North Carolina. More than $5 million was spent on a state Supreme Court race in 2016, according to a Brennan Center for Justice report.
Asked why Lindberg gave so much, Forest's top political aide referred the question to Lindberg.
Current state GOP Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse also declined to discuss Lindberg but said donors to the party "can be motivated by one thing, to elect a broad swath of Republicans to office, because that is all we do and all we are capable of doing."