Newly released FBI documents on Cass Ballenger, who represented parts of Western North Carolina in Congress for 18 years, detail some of the rougher edges of his time in public service.

The records, obtained by Carolina Public Press through the Freedom of Information Act, offer a window into security concerns faced by Ballenger, who died in February at age 88. The main incidents addressed in the papers are two apparent threats and a robbery at his office in Hickory.

However, the documents do not reveal anything about Ballenger’s involvement in sometimes controversial foreign-policy matters, including Ballenger’s surprisingly close relationship with leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his allegations regarding an American Muslim group.

Key released portions of the bureau’s file on Ballenger can be read, for the first time, below.

Anonymous and ultimately discounted threats

A Hickory native and manufacturing company owner who spent much of his life in elected offices, Ballenger represented a congressional district that straddled parts of Western North Carolina and the foothills to the east.

Ballenger’s work in the House of Representatives, from 1987 to 2005, was mostly focused on constituent services and legislation about business and worker issues and international affairs. But little of that shows up in the newly released FBI documents.

Instead, many of the papers deal with two anonymous threats against the congressman, both of them apparently homegrown and ultimately judged harmless by the FBI.

The first came almost as soon as Ballenger arrived at Capitol Hill. A letter postmarked Belmont, Gaston County, arrived at his Washington, D.C., office in early 1987.

In rough-hewn italics, the anonymous writer said, “I’ll kill every f***n’ body if I’m caught for anything. P.S. And that goes for everybody in the State Capitols.”

After investigating, the FBI judged the missive a probably harmless “crank letter,” according to the documents, which suggest that the FBI never identified the author of the letter.

The second threat against Ballenger came from an initially anonymous person who had written the representative at his office and vaguely threatened both Ballenger and a Pennsylvania representative regarding a rambling concern about deficiencies in local health care.

The letter, sent in March 1991, told Ballenger that “They will stake you out on the road with a high powered rifle with a silencer.”

In this case, the file says, the FBI found the angry letter writer and noted that a local prosecutor found the correspondent “had no intention of harming anyone and was just expressing frustrations that he felt over the present financial system.”

FBI files on 1987 threat against N.C. Rep. Cass Ballenger (PDF)
FBI files on 1987 threat against N.C. Rep. Cass Ballenger (Text)

Robbing the wrong guy

The other main subject addressed in the released parts of the FBI file was a break-in and robbery at Ballenger’s district office in Hickory.

In the October 1991 incident, a burglar made off with “approximately 20 signed passes for admittance to the Senate Gallery of the United State Capitol,” a similar number of passes Ballenger had signed for tours of the White House, about $50 in petty cash and a credit card, according to the FBI’s investigation.

Given the theft of the passes, the FBI reported the crime to both the Secret Service and the U.S. Capitol Police, and the bureau promptly sent investigators to Hickory.

Ten days after the break-in, FBI agents interrogated a local suspect, Michael Ray Brown, according to the records.

Brown, who had several prior drug and theft arrests, confessed to the robbery and to stealing from several other offices in the same complex as Ballenger’s. He had no idea, he said, that he’d committed a federal crime during his string of local ones.

As for the passes to the Senate Gallery and the White House, Brown said he discarded them soon after the robbery, and the FBI file makes no mention of them being recovered.

Brown was convicted in state court the following year in a series of felony breaking and entering cases in Catawba County, not including the intrusion at Ballenger’s office.

FBI files on 1991 Robbery of Rep. Cass Ballenger’s Hickory Office (PDF)
FBI files on 1991 Robbery of Rep. Cass Ballenger’s Hickory Office (Text)

Some hot-button issues absent from release

Of the 262 pages of records the FBI said it has regarding Ballenger, 77 remain classified. The bureau said the still-secret documents contain information protected by either personal privacy or law-enforcement exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

The released documents make no mention of a dispute late in Ballenger’s congressional career that involved the FBI. That matter stemmed from an interview Ballenger gave the Charlotte Observer in 2003, in which he partially attributed the recent breakup of his marriage to the fact that his Washington, D.C., home was across the street from the headquarters of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a nonprofit advocacy group.

CAIR’s proximity “bugged the hell” out of his wife, Ballenger said. “Diagonally across from my house … the fundraising arm for Hezbollah. I reported them to the FBI and CIA.”

CAIR hit back at Ballenger for the remarks, asserting that that the group eschews terrorism and has no ties to terrorist groups. The group filed a defamation lawsuit against the congressman that proved unsuccessful.

The FBI, for its part, declined to comment on what Ballenger told the bureau about the group.

Ballenger also courted a bit of controversy by forging ties to Venezuela’s Chavez, a leader roundly criticized by U.S. officials, who accused him of repressive governance.

Ballenger and Chavez became fairly close during a period when Ballenger served as chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, and in 2001, Ballenger hosted Chavez for a visit in Hickory that included a barbecue at the congressman’s home.

Like the dispute with CAIR, however, the released parts of Ballenger’s FBI file offer nothing about Chavez.

CPP has also requested the CIA’s and State Department’s records on Ballenger, but hasn’t received records from those agencies yet.

Jon Elliston

Jon Elliston is the lead contributing open government reporter at Carolina Public Press. Contact him at jelliston@carolinapublicpress.org.

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