By Nelson Oliveira

The chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, who abruptly announced his retirement this week, is among four top political and business figures charged in a corruption and bribery scheme, according to a federal indictment unsealed Tuesday.

Robert Hayes, a former five-term congressman, is accused of trying to bribe the state's insurance commissioner in exchange for regulatory help for a multinational investment company owned by a major Republican donor, Greg Lindberg. Authorities also say Hayes lied to the FBI during a 2018 interview about the scheme.

He and Lindberg appeared in court Tuesday with accused accomplices John Palermo, chairman of the Chatham County Republican Party, and John Gray, a consultant for Gray.

"The indictment unsealed today outlines a brazen bribery scheme in which Greg Lindberg and his coconspirators allegedly offered hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions in exchange for official action that would benefit Lindberg's business interests," Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said in a statement.

The indictment states the four men created a scheme involving improper campaign contributions to convince the insurance commissioner, who holds an elected position, to take actions favorable to Lindberg's company, Eli Global.

Authorities said the insurance commissioner, Mike Causey, reported the attempted bribes in January 2018 and agreed to cooperate with the investigation.

The defendants offered Causey millions of dollars and other valuable items in exchange for the removal of the insurance department's senior deputy commissioner, according to the indictment. The deputy commissioner oversees regulation of companies like Lindberg's.

The news comes one day after the North Carolina GOP announced Hayes would retire in June after four terms on the post. The party said Hayes had initially planned to seek re-election, but changed his mind because of recent health complications.

"Robin Hayes has been one of the most successful NCGOP chairs ever, leading Republican victories in North Carolina for the last two presidential elections and playing an instrumental role in bringing the Republican National Convention to Charlotte in 2020," U.S. Senator Thom Tillis said Monday in a news release about Hayes' retirement.

Palermo, who's also an executive at Eli Global, even funded two corporate entities with $1.5 million to form a political action committee in support of the commissioner's re-election campaign, federal investigators allege.

"In order to conceal the scheme, the defendants took steps to anonymously funnel the campaign contributions to the commissioner in a manner to avoid publicly disclosing that they had come from Lindberg," the indictment states.

During one of the meetings the commissioner had with Palermo, the defendant urged the official to hire him to replace the deputy commissioner, court records show. Palermo told Causey that Lindberg had offered Palermo "a substantial exit package" to make up for the salary reduction from Eli Global to the commissioner's office, according to the indictment.

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