Kenneth Bell – Nominee to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina

Jonas Federal Building (site of the W.D.N.C. Courthouse in Charlotte).

A former Republican candidate for Congress, Ken Bell is Trump’s first nominee for the Western District of North Carolina.  Setting aside Bell’s political history, he is likely to face questions about his support for prosecuting Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Background

Kenneth Davis “Ken” Bell was born in Bedford, OH in 1958.[1]  Bell attended Wake Forest University and Wake Forest University School of Law.  He then joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.  He stayed in the office for the next 20 years, except for a 2-year hiatus at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice in Winston-Salem.[2]

In 2003, Bell joined the Charlotte office of Mayer Brown as a Partner.  Three years later, Bell shifted to the Charlotte office of Hunton & Williams.[3]  In 2009, Bell moved again to McGuireWoods LLP in Charlotte, where he continues to work as a Partner.[4]

History of the Seat

Bell has been nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina.  This seat opened on August 31, 2017, when Judge Richard Voorhees moved to senior status.  Around the time the vacancy opened, Bell reached out to Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis (R-NC) to interview for the seat.[5]

In November 2017, Bell was recommended to the White House for the vacancy.[6]  On April 12, 2018, Bell was officially nominated for the seat.

Legal Experience

Bell has practiced law for approximately thirty-five years, with that time evenly split between working as a federal prosecutor and in private practice.

Federal Prosecutor

Bell has two stints as a federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of North Carolina, from 1983 to 1988 and from 1990 to 2003.  While Bell has handled many cases as a federal prosecutor, he is perhaps most famous for his prosecution of a Hezbollah cell operating in Charlotte.  His prosecution produced the first trial conviction ever secured under the Material Support statute.  The cell consisted of individuals who would buy cigarettes in North Carolina and resell them illegally in Michigan, passing on to the profits to Hezbollah.[7]  In addition to securing the first trial convictions under the Material Support statute, Bell also secured the first trial convictions for a terrorist cell under the RICO statute.[8]  Bell’s work on the prosecution resulted in him being awarded the Attorney General’s John Marshall Award for Trial of Litigation.[9]

Among other matters, Bell prosecuted drug crimes,[10] voting fraud,[11] counterfeiting,[12] and civil rights violations.[13]

Private Practice

Bell has been in private practice since 2003, shifting between the firms of Mayer Brown, Hunton & Williams, and McGuire Woods in Charlotte.  In each of these positions, Bell worked primarily on defending individuals and corporations charged with white collar crimes.[14]

Notably, Bell was the chief defense counsel to James Black, the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives, who faced federal charges of corruption.[15]  Black was charged, among other counts, with bribing Republican Rep. Michael Decker to switch parties in 2003, allowing Black to remain Speaker despite a narrow Republican majority.  As Black’s defense counsel, Bell negotiated a plea to one charge of receiving illegal gratuities.[16]  More recently, Bell also represented Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-NC) against corruption charges.[17]

Since 2012, Bell has served as a Receiver over the assets of the Rex Venture Group (also known as ZeekRewards), a Ponzi scheme whose closing created over $800 million in losses.[18]  As Receiver, Bell has filed suits against insiders and net winners from the scheme, seeking to recover the contributions put in by those who were defrauded.[19]

Political Activity

In the 1990 election cycle, Bell ran as a Republican for North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District against Democratic Incumbent Stephen Neal.  Bell won the primary against fellow Republican Steve Royal with 51% of the vote.[20]  During the campaign, Bell attacked Neal for his efforts in Congress on behalf of the Savings & Loan Industries.[21]  However, Bell in turn was attacked by Democrats for using $2500 in campaign funds to make mortgage and car payments.[22]  Rep. Beryl Anthony (D-Ark.), the then-Chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) called the use of campaign funds “just plain wrong.”[23]  Bell and other Republicans engaged in the practice defended their actions, arguing that the use of campaign funds for personal expenses was legal and helped level the playing field against powerful incumbents.[24][25]  Ultimately, Bell took 41% of the vote in the ultimate election.[26]

Bell has been a frequent donor to Republicans, having given over $10000 over the last twelve years.[27]  Bell has given particularly generously to Burr, who has received over $4000.[28]  Others Bell has donated to include former Rep. Sue Myrick, Sen. Marco Rubio, and presidential candidate Mitt Romney.[29]

Writings

Throughout his legal career, Bell has written and spoken frequently on legal and public policy issues.   Of the many topics that Bell has written on, two are particularly notable.

First, Bell has repeatedly argued for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton for her use of unsecured email servers during her service as Secretary of State.  In a 2015 letter to the editor, Bell argued that Clinton’s use of the email servers violated the law, noting:

“If I had done what Ms. Clinton has done, I would have been prosecuted, and I would have been guilty.”[30]

After then-FBI Director James Comey announced his determination that Clinton had not broken any laws and that no “reasonable prosecutor” would indict her, Bell authored a second article, stating that he could find “an army of reasonable prosecutors” who would have indicted.[31]  In the second article, Bell argues that Clinton’s actions might suggest “disloyalty to the United States,” that Comey “got out of his lane” by recommending no prosecution, and that Attorney General Loretta Lynch was being unreasonable in not bringing charges.[32]

Bell’s article prompted a response from fellow Charlotte attorney David Tinkler, who noted that Clinton had used a secure server to transmit all information that was marked “classified” and that her behavior was no different than that of previous Republican Secretaries of State.[33]

Second, Bell was a strong advocate for the confirmation of Judge Robert Conrad to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.[34]  Conrad was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2007 and blocked by the Democratic Senate due to concerns about his conservative ideology and previous comments opposing Planned Parenthood.[35]  In an interview, Bell described the blockade on Conrad as “embarrassing and outrageous” and urged Democrats to allow a hearing on Conrad.[36]

Overall Assessment

Like his fellow North Carolina nominee Thomas Farr, Bell is likely to face a rocky confirmation process.  In Bell’s case, the trouble is likely to come from his writings, rather than his legal activities.

Bell is likely to face significant pushback over his view that Hillary Clinton should have been charged criminally for her use of personal email servers, a view rejected by legal observers in both parties (albeit embraced by some mainstream voices).  Democrats are unlikely to support a candidate who urged criminal charges against their last presidential nominee.  Additionally, some critics may charge Bell with hypocrisy, noting his use of campaign funds for personal expenses in his 1990 election (conduct that may have been legal at the time, but has more recently been firmly prohibited by the Federal Election Commission).[37]

Additionally, Bell’s strong endorsement of Conrad, a judge himself criticized for his strong statements against Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice movement,[38] is unlikely to endear Bell to Senate Democrats.

In his favor, Bell’s credentials for the bench are unquestionable given his extensive legal experience.  Furthermore, Bell can point to his representation of prominent Democrats such as Black to reinforce his bipartisan credentials.

As a bottom line, Bell is likely to face strong opposition from Senate Democrats.  However, if he can secure the support of all Senate Republicans, he will still be confirmed.  As such, barring another shoe dropping, Bell remains the favorite for confirmation.


[1] Sen. Comm. on the Judiciary, 115th Cong., Kenneth D. Bell: Questionnaire for Judicial Nominees 1.

[2] Id. at 2.

[3] See id.

[4] See id.

[5] See Bell, supra n. 1 at 56.

[6] See id.

[7] See Jeffrey Goldberg, In the Party of God, New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2002, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/10/28/in-the-party-of-god-2.  

[8] See United States v. Hammoud, et al., CR-00-147-MU (W.D.N.C.).

[9] See Bell, supra n. 1 at 45.

[10] See, e.g., United States v. McChan, 101 F.3d 1027 (4th Cir. 1996); United States v. McManus, 23 F.3d 878 (4th Cir. 1994).

[11] See, e.g., United States v. Odom, 736 F.2d 104 (4th Cir. 1984).

[12] See, e.g., United States v. Ross, 844 F.2d 187 (4th Cir. 1988).

[13] See, e.g., United States v. Rathburn, 1:99-cr-00091-LHT (W.D.N.C.).

[14] See Bell, supra n. 1 at 28.

[15] United States v. Black, 5:07-cr-00042-BO (E.D.N.C.).

[16] See id.

[17] Tim Funk, Rep. Robert Pittenger, Challenger Mark Harris Target Character in New Ads, Charlotte Observer, May 23, 2016, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/politics-government/article79385082.html.  

[18] Securities and Exchange Comm’n v. Rex Venture LLC d/b/a ZeekRewards.com, and Paul Burks, 3:12-CV-519 (W.D.N.C.).

[19] McGuire Woods: Court-Appointed Receiver in ZeekRewards Case Sues Insiders, Net Winners of the Scheme, India Investment News, Mar. 3, 2014.

[20] See Our Campaigns, https://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=187113 (last visited July 29, 2018).

[21] Nathaniel C. Cash, How Old Votes Become New Political Liabilities, Wash. Post, Aug. 24, 1990.

[22] See Miles Benson, Run for Congress Can Pay Mortgage, Seattle Times, Aug. 26, 1990, http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=19900826&slug=1089789.  

[23] Charles R. Babcock, Personal Use of Campaign Funds Sparks Dispute; Challengers Say System Allows the Practice, Improving their Chances Against Incumbents, Wash. Post, Aug. 3, 1990.

[24] See id.

[25] Coincidentally, another challenger attacked for the personal use of campaign funds was an Indiana candidate named Mike Pence.  See Benson, supra n. 29.

[26] See Our Campaigns, https://www.ourcampaigns.com/RaceDetail.html?RaceID=34410 (last visited July 29, 2018).

[28] See id.

[29] See id.

[30] Kenneth D. Bell, Letter to the Editor, Clinton Offers Up A Meaningless Dodge, Charlotte Observer, Sept. 2, 2015, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/letters-to-the-editor/article33225267.html.  

[31] Kenneth D. Bell, A ‘Reasonable’ Case for Charging Hillary Clinton, Charlotte Observer, July 9, 2016, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article88564422.html.  

[32] See id.

[33] David Tinkler, Why the FBI Made the Right Choice on Hillary Clinton Probe, Charlotte Observer, July 14, 2016, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/opinion/op-ed/article89697407.html.

[34] Lisa Zagaroli, Conrad at Center of Partisan Fight, Charlotte Observer, July 22, 2008, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article8994503.html.  

[35] See id.

[36] Guy Loranger, Court’s Open Seats Raise Concern in NC, North Carolina Lawyers Weekly, Aug. 4, 2008.

[37] Federal Election Commission, Personal Use, https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/making-disbursements/personal-use/ (last visited July 29, 2018) (“The campaign may not pay for mortgage, rent or utilities for the personal residence of the candidate or the candidate’s family even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign”).

[38] See Zagaroli, supra n. 34.

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