Christensen

Politics thrives on good money, bad memories

Staff WriterOctober 28, 2009 

EASLEY20.NE.102709.ASR

Jim Cooney, a lawyer for N.C. Democratic Party questions Dave Horne, a top official in former Gov. Mike Easley's gubernatorial campaigns.

SHAWN ROCCO — Staff photo by Shawn Rocco

— The lid of the state Capitol dome has been peeled back this week. The State Board of Elections has the crowbar and flashlight, and the political operatives are scurrying for cover.

During a hearing about whether former Gov. Mike Easley violated campaign finance laws, a parade of politicos, connected lawyers, developers and assorted country slickers have described under oath how things get done in Raleigh. The common denominator is money -- lots of it.

California Assembly leader Jesse Unruh said, "Money is the mother's milk of politics." In North Carolina, it is the sweet tea of elections.

To get elected to two terms as governor, Easley, a Democrat, raised $18 million. Maybe $1 million came from family and friends. The rest came from people who wanted something: appointments to university boards or state commissions, approval of development projects, or environmental permits or other favors.

A generation ago, North Carolina politics was driven by courthouse machines fueled by patronage jobs. Today, politics is dominated by television advertising, which is a black hole for campaign cash.

Easley's chief fundraiser, Michael Hayden, was hired because he was said to be relentless. (He prefers "persistent.") He was so important that he moved into Easley's unused Raleigh house while Easley was living in the Executive Mansion.

Investigators produced memos, which Easley campaign officials said they couldn't remember, that suggested individual donation limits ($4,000 per person) and the ban on corporate contributions were for suckers. They suggested that money should go to the Democratic Party, to which people can give much larger donations.

Gary Allen, formerly a Charlotte real estate developer who now lives in Naples, Fla., gave the maximum $4,000 individual contribution to Easley in 2003. He then twice wrote $50,000 checks to the state Democratic Party. At the time, Allen was having difficulty getting a permit to build a boat ramp for a coastal development, although he said his donations were unrelated.

Allen was hooked up with Ruffin Poole, the governor's lawyer, who also operated as an all-around Mr. Political Fix-it for Easley.

"You thought he would have some insight into the Division of Water Quality?" Bill Peaslee, an elections board member, asked Allen.

Allen said he had been advised to talk with Poole.

Jim Cooney, a Democratic Party lawyer, noted that Allen got that permit only after he hired a marine engineer and spent an extra $150,000 to address environmental problems.

Despite the ban on corporate contributions to candidates, Raleigh businessman McQueen Campbell was practically running an off-the-books airline charter service for Easley, providing him with 61 free flights. Campbell was rewarded with a seat on the N.C. State University Board of Trustees; he also worked with Allen's development firm.

Free corporate flights. Donations exceeding state legal limits. Campaign funds being used to make repairs on the governor's private house. And campaign staffers with sudden cases of acute amnesia.

Mark Hanna, the old Ohio boss, once remarked: "There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money, and I can't remember what the second one is."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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