Sen. R.C. Soles pleaded guilty Thursday to shooting someone, paid a $1,000 fine, went back to being a senator and left another smudge on the voters' already soiled picture of North Carolina's political leaders.
Soles, 75, a top-ranking Democrat in the N.C. Senate and the state's long est-serving legislator, copped to a misdemeanor charge of assault and joined other public figures in a parade of recent career-ending scandals.
His plea spared him a felony conviction for the August shooting of a would-be intruder, a young man who was a former law client, at Soles' home in Tabor City. The senator long claimed that he shot in self-defense.
Soles will continue to practice law and will finish out his Senate term, his lawyer said. He announced in December that he wouldn't run for re-election this year but said Thursday that he was tempted.
"My gut feeling says go to the Board of Elections and sign up," Soles told The Associated Press, "but I don't think I'll do that."
Soles' exit from politics comes after an embarrassing string of events that ended Thursday with what some called a light penalty.
He was North Carolina's latest politician to fall.
An aide to former Gov. Mike Easley was indicted last month on federal corruption charges, and a federal grand jury is looking into Easley's actions. Former Speaker of the House Jim Black is in prison on a corruption conviction, as are two former legislators and a former lottery commissioner. A former congressman just got out. All but one are Democrats.
"All of that gives a lot of people a lot of heartburn," said Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat who is not running for re-election. "The citizens are very disgusted with all politicians from both parties."
Soles' plea will provide Republicans ammunition for campaign attacks.
"The rules for regular folks and for powerful Democrats are apparently different in Columbus County and maybe in the state," said Senate Republican leader Phil Berger of Eden. "I don't know too many folks who could plead guilty to shooting someone and the penalty is a $1,000 fine."
The episode also further inflames voters, bruised and scraped by a brutal economy, some said.
Harm to one and all
"It hurts everybody in politics," said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic consultant. "There's an anti-politician, anti-incumbent, anti-government mood sweeping across the populace."
Polls historically show voters often don't know which party controls the state legislature, where Democrats now hold a majority in both the House and Senate.
In August, Soles shot Thomas Kyle Blackburn, 22, after Blackburn and another man tried to kick in Soles' door. Blackburn was not seriously injured and later asked that charges not be filed.
Soles' lawyer, Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh, said Soles' mistake was not calling the police when the incident began. Instead, he stepped outside with the gun, according to authorities.
Cheshire said Soles' constituents want him to finish his term. "He shot people who were trying to break into his home," Cheshire said. "I don't think most people in North Carolina would think that would prevent somebody from being a good legislator."
After the court appearance, Soles said he was sorry.
"I thought I was in the right," he told the AP. "Sometimes you make bad judgments."
The incident put a spotlight on Soles' years of involvement in the lives of young men who were former clients. Records show police were called to Soles' house and law office at least 40 times in the past four years, ranging from routine burglar alarm activations to reported assaults and complaints that young people on mopeds were circling Soles' house.
Soles maintained he gave generously to the young men to help them shift to a productive life.
The office of Attorney General Roy Cooper handled the prosecution after Rex Gore, the Columbus County district attorney, stepped aside because of long-standing political ties to Soles.
"We felt, under the circumstances, we could not allow him to take the law into his own hands and he had to be accountable," James J. Coman, a senior deputy attorney general, told the judge, AP reported.
Even if he had been convicted of a felony, it's not clear whether Soles would have been forced out of office. A member of the legislature has to be a qualified voter, a non-felon, when elected. Once in office it's up to the other senators or representatives to decide whether a legislator is qualified to serve. In 2008, the House expelled Rep. Thomas Wright, a Democrat, before he was convicted of fraud and obstruction charges.
Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant who has played watchdog on his own party, said the case sends a signal that the state often has a difficult time policing itself.
"Federal prosecutors seem to have a better rate of success," he said, pointing to the multi-year federal sentences against Black and others.
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