RALEIGH — Larry Leake was doing his best Sen. Sam Ervin imitation this week as he presided over the hearings into whether former Gov. Mike Easley broke campaign finance laws.
When Easley seemed to have trouble recalling the name of Kemper, the company that insured his private Raleigh residence, Leake seemed puzzled.
"I'm just a poor country boy from Madison County, and I don't know how these things work," Leake said, referring to a document. "But that is a letter that seems to say Kemper."
Like Ervin, the North Carolina mountain senator who presided over the Watergate investigation, such disarming folksiness is a bit of a disguise. Leake, a Mars Hill lawyer who has headed the State Board of Elections since 1997, has become an experienced interrogator of the high and mighty.
Leake was able to keep the board's inquiry focused on several key questions, when it could easily have drifted into tangential questions involved in the Easley investigations. He also was able to develop a bipartisan consensus on the board, making sure that its recommendations were far more powerful.
Quips, asides, 'suhs'
In his slow mountain drawl, Leake, 59, relentlessly bores in on witnesses. His style is unmistakably his own: a courtly blend of "suhs," mixed with a speech impediment that causes him to struggle with his "R's" and with his own brand of quips and asides.
"I've always wanted to pick on a governor," he told Easley before the questioning.
He has presided over hearings of high-profile cases involving former House Speaker Jim Black, former state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former state Rep. Thomas Wright.
All are Democrats. So is Leake, who was appointed to the board by Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt in 1993 and reappointed by Easley. Leake held a fundraiser for Easley at his Mars Hills home during the 2000 campaign and donated several thousand dollars to Easley's campaigns.
Leake grew up in "Bloody Madison," traditionally the scene of some of North Carolina's most bare-knuckled politics, where by reputation being dead has not necessarily always been an impediment to voting. A protégé of former House Speaker Liston Ramsey, Leake served one term in the state Senate.
He was educated at UNC-Chapel Hill. He practices law with the firm of Leake, Scott and Stokes, and he represents several mountain towns, including Marshall.
Leake was delighted because Jon Sasser, one of the lawyers appearing before the elections board last week, had represented a 56-year-old woman who sued the town of Marshall for expelling her from a community center for lascivious dancing.
"There's the dirty dancing lawyer!" Leake exclaimed.
Leake's past support for Easley prompted two former GOP lawmakers to urge Leake to recuse himself from the hearings.
But Leake got good marks for leading the board, which is composed of three Democrats and two Republicans.
"I thought he did a really good of bringing a lot of evidence out," said Bill Peaslee, a GOP board member and former chief of staff of the state Republican Party. "He made it easy or attempted to make it easy and did a lot of the heavy lifting. I'm very happy with the chairman."
In fact, Leake has a history of plowing ahead on investigations of his friends, despite what must have been many subtle pressures to simply leave the matter to the courts.
His integrity shows
"If you look at the three high-profile investigations going back to Phipps and Black, Leake's integrity shines through," said Joe Sinsheimer, a former political consultant who closely follows campaign finance. "In each case, he made criminal referrals involving people who were his friends."
Sinsheimer said Leake showed wisdom in asking the legislature to change the campaign law to make candidates personally liable for penalties for campaign violations. He said Leake and the board were obviously troubled that Easley and other candidates could simply say they were disconnected from their campaign operations.
He also praised Leake for absolving Dave Horne, Easley's campaign treasurer, noting that it would be difficult for campaigns to recruit volunteer treasurers if they are to be held responsible for every expenditure.
"Some would argue that having someone there 16 years is a bad thing," Sinsheimer said of Leake's tenure on the board. "But I think we saw today why it is a good thing."
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