Hallowed ground.

Author:Martin, Edward
 
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North Carolina's wealthiest politician showed investors how to cash in on escalating land prices. How Robert Pittenger built his road to riches.

Sensually, two women caress and sway in a darkened room. Suddenly with a jolt, masked men brandishing Kalashnikovs storm out of L-X a wall of flames. "Moral decay terrorism!" an alarmed voice intones. An instant later, a somber man in suit and open collar, his temples creased after 67 years, looms into the camera's focus, flanked by an American flag. "We need a trusted leader like Robert Pittenger to keep America safe," croons the commercial's narrator as a doting mother playfully tosses her toddler in the air.

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That's the half-minute political profile of Charlotte's Republican congressman, a Texan who arrived an outsider in North Carolina in 1985. Tough on terrorists, unyielding Christian conservative, champion of traditional values.

There's another Robert Pittenger, however. That's the ultimate insider, the Robert Pittenger of metes and bounds, surveys and deeds. Of feasibility studies and urban plans and highway interchanges. Mixing an expertise in real-estate investment with old-fashioned country-club networking, he created a land-swapping empire by leveraging $300 million of other people's money--in this case, a who's who of North Carolina's establishment including several Belk family members; Panthers owner Jerry Richardson's wife, Rosalind; Parkdale Mills CEO Andy Warlick; McDonald's mogul Mike Haley; some of the state's most prominent politicians and about 1,800 others. In the process, he amassed a net worth that once topped $50 million and helped propel his political career.

As he's become North Carolina's wealthiest politician, Pittenger has mastered the art of melding business and religious connections into votes. He emerged from the sex-and-drugs college scene of the early 1970s as a Campus Crusade for Christ staff member who helped connect founder Bill Bright with wealthy conservative evangelicals. After a decade traveling around the world with Bright, Pittenger used similar fundraising skills on his own behalf, creating 72 partnerships to buy undeveloped tracts, then reselling the land to developers. In four counties adjoining Charlotte alone, Pittenger Land Investments LLC came to hold about 11,000 acres with an estimated value of more than $100 million.

"I became a Christian in college, and that is who I am," Pittenger says in a telephone interview. "I don't wear it on my sleeve, but I'm not going to deny my faith. I don't know what a Christian businessman is. The core of my business is business."

But in 2015, three years after his election to Congress, controversy embroiled Pittenger as disgruntled clients complained about his business practices and federal investigators studied links between his business and political interests. Members of Congress can't engage as fiduciaries managing others' investments because of potential conflicts of interest, so Pittenger signed over the business to his wife, Suzanne, in 2013. Pittenger won't say if money changed hands in that transaction. In June, the business sold for $35 million, representing a 10% interest in 51 limited partnerships. The buyer, a joint venture between investors and Charlotte-based South Street Partners, paid Pittenger Land $6 million. As land is sold, payments that could be worth as much as $29 million will be distributed to the joint venture.

That same month, Pittenger won his primary re-election by 133 votes, defeating two contenders who split the anti-incumbent sentiment. Had he faced either Mark Harris, a Baptist minister in Charlotte, or Todd Johnson, a Unionville insurance agent, in a one-on-one contest, "it's almost certain that Pittenger loses," says Eric Heberlig, a political science professor at UNC Charlotte. Now, with a district that leans heavily Republican, he's expected to easily win a third term in November.

Pittenger confirms that investigators at the FBI and IRS have "been at it for 15 months," though he hadn't been interviewed as of mid-July. "Whatever they have asked for, they got it." His lawyer, Kenneth Bell, of Charlotte's McGuireWoods LLP, denies any wrongdoing. Charlotte FBI spokeswoman Shelley Lynch won't discuss the case.

The federal inquiries involve adequate disclosure to investors and potentially illegal funnelling of corporate money into his 2012 campaign in which he defeated former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Jim Pendergraph, according to people who have been interviewed by investigators for as many as eight hours. Records show Pittenger gave $1.6 million and loaned his campaign another $644,000, with thousands more coming from his wife. That campaign showed Pittenger's willingness to play rough, particularly in a color brochure picturing a sobbing girl. "The caption above the picture said the little girl was sexually molested because Sheriff Jim Pendergraph couldn't keep up with his sex offenders," says Mecklenburg County's sheriff from 1994 to 2007. "What a lie. It left my wife a basket case, but there was nothing I could do about it. He spent $2.7 million attacking me, and I had $400,000 to spend."

The election continued a pattern in...

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