Christensen

Easley defends his name; will he win?

Staff WriterOctober 29, 2009 

— It was a confident, self-assured Mike Easley who showed up for the hearing Wednesday in the Clarion Hotel in downtown Raleigh, just two blocks from the governor's office in the Capitol that he left in January.

Easley appeared without a coterie of aides or high-priced legal talent. He carried no notes.

Despite his reputation for reclusiveness, Easley had spent much of his life in the public eye as a prosecutor, attorney general and governor. But this time, he was fighting for his fraying reputation.

That is why Easley spent nearly five hours before the State Board of Elections, almost certainly a first for a former Tar Heel governor, being grilled under oath in minute detail about his campaign finances.

Who paid for his campaign flights? Who paid for repairs to his home? Had he asked for illegal campaign contributions? Who ran his campaigns? Had he ever visited his campaign headquarters? Was it true he was tight with his money?

Easley's decision to testify was a gamble. Some of the best legal minds in the city thought Easley should invoke his constitutional right against self-incrimination, on the theory that any testimony could be used against him if criminal charges should be brought. A federal grand jury is looking into his campaign finances.

Easley did not want the barrage of charges against him to go unanswered.

Easley, a Democrat, displayed the skills that made him a polished courtroom performer as a district attorney and got him elected as attorney general and governor. He turned on the folksy charm while sharply addressing accusations against him. He never lost his cool during the marathon of questioning.

During a break, he even chatted with an FBI agent on hand to witness the proceedings, although he kept his distance from the reporters who have been his nemesis.

He repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and said his name had been besmirched.

While he provided many details, he could also be vague when asked about the inner working of his campaigns. He said he was too busy governing to even know where his campaign headquarters was located.

"To my knowledge," Easley said, "I don't think I've ever seen a campaign report."

Easley was unruffled by the questions, saying he understood the elections board members had a job to do. He reminded members that he had appointed a majority of the five-member board, which includes three Democrats and two Republicans. "Since I had the privilege of appointing some of you, I would like to say I appreciate your service," Easley said as he opened his testi mony.

Board Chairman Larry Leake, whom some Republicans had criticized for holding a fundraiser in 2000 for Easley, continued his persistent and professional questioning. The same could not be said for Bob Cordle, whose unfettered flattery of all Democratic witnesses, including Easley, is cringe-inducing.

The elections board treated the former governor with respect, with Leake even doing his best Sam Ervin imitation, apologizing for being just a country lawyer.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whom you believe. Is it Easley or his protégé, McQueen Campbell, the Raleigh businessman whom Easley took under his wing and helped make chairman of the N.C. State University board of trustees?

They offered diametrically different stories about whether Easley was getting free airplane rides, whether the governor's campaign paid for Easley's house repairs and whether Easley properly handled an insurance claim.

Easley's performance Wednesday showed he has lost few of his political and courtroom skills.

But at this stage, it is not the voters whom Easley has to convince, but the criminal investigators.

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

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