Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, second from left, and Greg Lindberg, third from left, participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in September 2017 for the new headquarters of Durham-based Global Bankers Insurance Group. Courtesy of Global Bankers Insurance Group
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, second from left, and Greg Lindberg, third from left, participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony in September 2017 for the new headquarters of Durham-based Global Bankers Insurance Group. Courtesy of Global Bankers Insurance Group

Durham County

A newcomer to NC politics quickly becomes a campaign mega donor

By Colin Campbell

ccampbell@ncinsider.com

February 02, 2018 10:24 AM

A Durham businessman who donated more than $3 million to groups benefiting Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and state Republicans is a relative newcomer to North Carolina politics who's only voted in the state once, records show.

Greg Lindberg is the founder and leader of Eli Global, an international investment firm that oversees companies ranging from insurance to magazines to eye care.

He was the biggest financial contributor in 2017 to the NC Republican Party and two groups backing Forest, a Republican who's expected to run for governor in 2020. Some of that money went to a relatively new group that's been purchasing video equipment – not long after a nonprofit paid for equipment to set up a TV studio in the lieutenant governor's office.

Lindberg's support for Forest and the GOP surprised some observers because he gave extensively in 2016 to support Democratic Insurance Commissioner Wayne Goodwin. A political committee led by Eli Global executives and funded by Lindberg ran TV ads promoting Goodwin, who lost and is now the chairman of the NC Democratic Party. A spokesman for Goodwin says he had "no connection to or knowledge of the NC Opportunity Committee," the political committee.

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Lindberg, 47, did not agree to an interview but a spokesman issued a brief statement about his political involvement: "Mr. Lindberg is a longtime North Carolina resident who has supported and who 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 to include Democrat and former North Carolina Insurance Commissioner, Wayne Goodwin, and Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest."

Lindberg is registered as an unaffiliated voter, but he's only cast a ballot once – using same-day registration a few days before the November 2016 election, according to state records. His wife Tisha, who has sometimes matched his campaign contributions when he hit the legal maximum, is a registered Democrat.

Lindberg's website describes his business as including "100 companies with 7,000 employees, $1.75 billion in revenue, and $20 billion in proforma assets including pending acquisitions." HIs business began as a small healthcare industry newsletter in the early 1990s, and it began buying up other companies in 2001. The business model is to keep the original leaders in place after an acquisition by Eli Global, according to Lindberg's website.

The companies under Eli Global include a magazine publisher with titles including Knives Illustrated, Victorian Homes and Drag Racer, a Chapel Hill-based marketing firm, and a Dallas-based sports collectibles business, as well as several firms focusing on eye care, medical records and debt collection.

Many of the companies in Eli Global's portfolio are in the insurance industry, often under the umbrella of Durham-based Global Bankers Insurance Group, which lists Lindberg as its founder. In September, Forest was the featured guest at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the insurance company's new headquarters, according to a news release.

Lindberg made his first $400,000 contribution to a Forest-related campaign organization in August, finance records show. Prior to that, his political donations were aimed at politicians with influence over insurance regulations.

He is the primary contributor to the North Carolina Opportunity Committee, which lists Eli Global executives as its leaders, and gave it $350,000 in 2016 when it ran pro-Goodwin TV ads. That committee remains active and got another $100,000 from Lindberg in October, but its current mission is unclear. Most of its recent spending went to longtime Democratic strategist Brad Crone's firm, but Crone said he's working under a confidentiality agreement and can't comment on the group.

Lindberg, his business associates and their wives also gave a total of $31,000 in the spring of 2017 to state Sen. Wesley Meredith, a Cumberland County Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Commerce and Insurance Committee. Meredith said Thursday he's "never met with" Lindberg or discussed insurance matters with him.

Global Bankers Insurance has two registered lobbyists at the NC General Assembly, James Harrell and Tracy Kimbrell. Lindberg also gave $5,200 in September to Sen. Brent Jackson, a Sampson County Republican – the maximum legal amount. In 2016, he gave $5,400 to Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr's campaign.

But Lindberg's political activity stepped up dramatically in the second half of 2017. Between August and December, he gave a total of $1.4 million to the NC Republican Council of State Committee, which is run by Forest and can also spend money on behalf of other GOP Council of State officials. While Forest's campaign can only accept donations of up to $5,200 per donor, the Council of State Committee can accept unlimited contributions.

The committee was created under a 2015 law that allows groups of Republicans or Democrats in either the legislature or statewide elected positions to create fundraising committees that act like political parties, but are controlled by elected officials.

As the only donor to the Council of State Committee, Lindberg effectively bankrolled the group's $42,000 in video equipment purchases – a move that came around the same time a nonprofit run by Forest donors contributed TV studio equipment to the lieutenant governor's office. That studio is only used for official government business, but having video equipment at the Council of State Committee's Raleigh office could allow Forest to produce campaign videos as he seeks to raise his profile ahead of a gubernatorial run.

Lindberg was also the sole donor in 2017 to Truth and Prosperity, a super PAC that supports Forest, giving $1 million in late December. That group – which unlike the Council of State Committee can't legally coordinate its activities with the Forest campaign – did not have any major spending in 2017. Lindberg gave a total of $890,000 last fall to the N.C. Republican Party – nearly half of its fundraising total for the six-month period, and substantially more than the $50,000 contributions the party received from two longtime conservative financiers, Raleigh businessmen Art Pope and Bob Luddy. Without the Lindberg money, the NCGOP would have spent more money than it received in the second half of 2017.

While Lindberg has had a substantial business presence in the Triangle for years, he's not a well-known name – something he boasts about on his website. "We don’t crow about our success: our success speaks for itself," he says on the website. "As a rule, we don’t do a lot of publicity and prefer to keep the focus on our customers and the people who serve them."

Lindberg's only recent foray into local headlines came in 2014 when he got into a legal dispute with prominent Chapel Hill businessman James Heavner, former owner of radio station WCHL. Eli Global was in the process of buying Heavner's University Directories, a collegiate marketing publisher, when University Directories' loans went into default. The company filed for bankruptcy as Heavner accused Lindberg of orchestrating a hostile takeover, while Lindberg accused University Directories of having "grossly mismanaged their financial operations."

On Wednesday – days after Lindberg's political activity began to make headlines – Lindberg posted a news release announcing that his company had reached a settlement in the University Directories lawsuit. "We are happy the court enforced our rights as senior creditor and approved the settlement which awarded us full cover of principal and interest," he said in the news release, which didn't include additional details of the settlement terms.

Another January news release from Lindberg touts his sponsorship of the NC Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, which provides need-based scholarships to the state's historically black colleges. That group is led by black legislators – all of them Democrats who have little in common with Lt. Gov. Forest.

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter