Friend: Easley campaign paid for home repairs

Staff WriterOctober 27, 2009 

  • State and federal authorities have been investigating former Gov. Mike Easley and his campaign. The probes follow a series of reports in The News & Observer about free cars, flights and how donors appeared to be funneling donations to Easley through the state Democratic Party. In July, the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy North Carolina alleged violations and requested hearings by the State Board of Elections.

    The board could declare that crimes occurred and could refer those matters to state and federal prosecutors.

  • At Monday's hearing, Thomas Hicks, representing former Gov. Mike Easley, attempted to show that McQueen Campbell might not always tell the truth. He challenged Campbell about an interview he conducted with The News & Observer in March, when Campbell said he had no involvement in getting Mary Easley a job at N.C. State.

    Campbell did play a role in Easley's hire, however, and resigned from the university's Board of Trustees because of that; e-mails released later show that he was deeply involved.

    He responded to Hicks, however, that in the interview, he meant that he had no involvement "from the N.C. State side."

    Here's the exchange between Campbell and The N&O:

    N&O: In 2005, what were the discussions about bringing her on at N.C. State?

    Campbell: None.

    N&O: You didn't talk to anybody about it?

    Campbell: Nope.

    N&O: Why not?

    Campbell: Because the trustees aren't involved in hiring.

    N&O: Did Mary Easley ever say anything to you?

    Campbell: Never.

    N&O: There wasn't any discussion?

    Campbell: No. I never lobbied for her. Never.

    N&O: The question wasn't about lobbying. There were no conversations?

    Campbell: There were none.

  • The Board of Elections hearing involving former Gov. Mike Easley resumes at 9:30 a.m. today and could last all week. We'll have all the coverage you need at newsobserver.com and in our daily print editions:

    Video: Live video streaming at newsobserver.com.

    Online: Regular updates on our home page and more coverage at our new Investigations blog at blogs.newsobserver.com/investigations, where you can also catch up on our coverage of Easley. You'll find additional news at projects.newsobserver.com/dome.

    Print: Deep reports on each day's events from J. Andrew Curliss and Dan Kane, plus columns from Rob Christensen.

Easley's campaign also did not pay for scores of political flights he took from 1999 through 2004, according to a star witness who flew him around: longtime friend and supporter, McQueen Campbell.

Campbell, a pilot, said under oath that he provided free campaign flights for Easley that were valued at $87,895. Campbell said he also provided personal flights on his planes, such as a fishing vacation to Florida in 2005, that were valued at more than $14,000.

The testimony offered a new and startling round of disclosures about Easley, a Democrat who left office in January. The information fit a pattern that has emerged since last year: A former attorney general and two-term governor who accepted perks in possible violation of laws and ethics rules.

"It's about the stinkiest stuff I've heard," said Jane Pinsky, who leads a broad coalition of groups that has sought ethics and lobbying reforms in Raleigh. "It's all so distasteful."

The revelations have included the free flights, free dues at an exclusive golf club, a $137,000 discount on a coastal lot purchase and the disclosure that Easley was involved four years ago in creating a job for his wife at N.C. State University.

Not all of those were discussed Monday. Another perk was -- a vehicle owned by a Fayetteville dealer that Easley's son drove for six years.

The dealer involved, Robert F. Bleecker, testified that he arranged to provide the car for Easley's son in 2002 or 2003 and that Easley said he would settle up later. About six years went by before Easley brought it up again, according to Bleecker.

Bleecker said that Easley has now paid in full, with part of the money coming from Easley's campaign, which has previously said the car was used for the campaign from 2003 until the middle of 2005.

When board member Bill Peaslee asked about what was a "normal lease," Bleecker interrupted him.

"This is not a normal deal, sir," Bleecker said.

Easley's lawyer, Thomas Hicks of Wilmington, said he would not immediately respond to all the allegations, but he said that Easley had not purposely violated the law. Easley did not attend the hearing Monday.

Easley is expected to testify as soon as Wednesday. Other donors and campaign officials, including some who flew Easley, are among possible witnesses who could testify today.

Campbell's testimony

Campbell testified first. His allegations rocked the meeting room at the Clarion Hotel, just down Hillsborough Street from Democratic Party headquarters.

Under questioning by Hicks, he acknowledged he never submitted an invoice for any flights. Campbell said he didn't think that was required. He thought the campaign, which knew about all the flights, was taking care of reporting.

Campbell also said that Easley at one point asked him to compile a list of the flights he'd provided but was unsure exactly why. He said he doesn't remember giving it to the campaign. "I may have shown it to him at some point along the way," Campbell said.

Elections board Chairman Larry Leake said each campaign must report what it takes in and spends and where the money goes. It's an essential part of modern elections law that requires transparency about campaigns. Individuals who give to campaigns, for example, are not required to file reports.

In addition, campaigns must adhere to laws that limit a donor to providing a contribution of no more than $4,000 in each election period.

Campbell's flights exceeded the limits in 1999, 2000 and 2004, according to records made public Monday.

The house repairs

By the end of 2004, after Easley had easily won a second term, the governor went to Campbell with a request, Campbell said.

Easley, who had kept his home on East Lake Drive in Raleigh after moving into the Executive Mansion, needed repairs on the house. The governor asked Campbell to take care of them, Campbell testified.

He said he oversaw about $4,000 in fixes that documents indicate included repairing the roof, trimming trees, washing sidewalks and cleaning dog feces from a bedroom and closet.

Bills for untaken flights

Campbell said he paid for the repairs but expected Easley to reimburse him. When the governor didn't, Campbell said he telephoned Easley.

"I called Gov. Easley and told him how much the repairs were," Campbell said. "And he asked if there were unbilled flights."

Leake asked: "What was your response to that question?"

"I remember understanding what he was saying ... for me to bill the campaign for unbilled flights to cover those amounts," Campbell testified.

Leake asked: "So the Easley campaign and its contributors actually paid for the repairs to Gov. Easley's home?"

"That's correct," Campbell responded. He billed the campaign $4,777.50; a company he owned was paid in February 2005.

A few months later, Campbell was contacted again about water damage at the home. He took care of the repairs, which cost him about $6,000. The campaign later paid a Campbell company $6,300 in August 2005, records show.

A call from Easley

That transaction raised questions with a campaign staffer named Rebecca McGhee, who worked for Dave Horne, Easley's finance director.

She wrote in a memo and testified Monday that she asked about the $6,300 check because there was no back-up to support that flights had taken place. She then got a call from Easley himself.

"The Governor said that he knows what the invoice says," McGhee wrote. "He instructed me that we should go ahead and pay the invoice."

The publicly listed purpose of both flights was travel, but Campbell testified that no flights correlated to those payments.

Records produced at the hearing also showed that Easley filed an insurance claim about the water damage. And the records show Easley accepted $5,451 in reimbursement from the claim.

Leake asked Campbell: "That's for the repair work you did? Did you receive any of those monies?"

"No, sir," Campbell said. "I did not."

Leake, a lawyer from Mars Hill, said he views the payments as possible tax problems but did not elaborate. Separate state and federal investigations are continuing, and officials involved have declined to comment.

After testifying Monday, Campbell left quickly with his lawyer, deflecting questions.

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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