Mike Easley, North Carolina's governor from 2001 to 2009, became a convicted felon today when he entered a plea to violating state campaign finance laws.
He will not serve time but will pay a $1,000 fine.
Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith endorsed the deal shortly after noon during a hearing at the Wake County courthouse, convicting Easley of filing a false campaign report. It ends nearly two years of state and federal probes that had surrounded Easley, a Democrat who served two terms as governor and two terms as attorney general.
Easley, 60, entered an Alford plea of guilty to violating campaign finance laws, a felony. An Alford plea means that Easley did not admit guilt, but he acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to convict him of a crime.
State law only denies the right to vote to felons who are in prison or on probation or parole, so it appears that Easley will retain his right to vote.
"Our campaigns over the years have made financial errors," Easley told the judge before his sentencing. "We've tried to correct them when we could. However, as a candidate, I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere and it stops with me."
The plea is specifically tied to a helicopter flight Easley took in October 2006 with longtime ally McQueen Campbell, the former chairman of the board of trustees at N.C. State University. It is valued at $1,600.
At the time of the flight, Easley's campaign did not disclose it as required on campaign disclosure forms. Then, last year, following a report in The News & Observer about a vehicle that Easley's son had been driving for years, the Easley campaign amended its 2006 report and said that the SUV had been a campaign vehicle at that time.
But the helicopter flight was not disclosed, which made it either an in-kind campaign contribution or an unreported campaign expense, according to prosecutor William Kenerly of Salisbury.
"Campaign money was not used inappropriately," Kenerly said in court today. "However it was reported incorrectly."
A document that Easley signed during today's hearing says that he feloniously caused the campaign to file the report as true when, in fact, Easley knew that it wasn't.
The deal did not address an outstanding $95,000 fine that Easley's campaign owes to the state Board of Elections. That fine resulted from hearings last year in which Easley and others testified under oath.
Easley will not have to perform any community service. And he will not be on probation.
Easley left the courtroom quickly after the hearing.
His attorney, Joseph B. Cheshire V stayed behind, though, to elaborate on the proceedings for the news crews that made up most of the courtroom audience.
Cheshire issued harsh words for much of the media coverage, singling out The News & Observer. "Hundreds of thousands of words" were written suggesting corruption and stirring the people of the state to a "fevered pitch," Cheshire said. But after an investigation that stretched nearly two years and included both federal and state investigators, Cheshire pointed out, no corruption charges were brought.
"This is how this case ends," Cheshire said. "If there ever were an example of an ending not with a bang, but with a whimper this case is it."
As part of the deal, federal authorities said in a letter to Easley's lawyer that they will close their part of the probe.
The letter says that federal prosecutors had outlined parts of their case to Easley on Nov. 10 and that Easley's lawyer had approached authorities about reaching a settlement in the case in recent weeks.
The letter is signed by the lead federal prosecutors, including Republican George E.B. Holding. It says "some of the acts and transactions" they reviewed do not warrant prosecution because a standard for presenting those items to the grand jury has not been met.
They said that while other acts might meet that standard, they also were taking into account the burden on accused persons in multiple prosecutions; the effective utilization of federal resources; and the concept of promoting cooperation between state and federal prosecutors.
As a result of those factors, they wrote, the rest of the case will go away because of Easley's plea in state court: "[T]he ongoing federal investigation of Mr. Easley's conduct will be closed, and this office will decline to bring any charges against Mr. Easley based on the currently known facts."
The state prosecutor, Kenerly, said in a statement that he expects the deal will be criticized. In recent weeks, he had said that he was studying whether part of state campaign law gave immunity to people, such as Easley, who were subpoenaed and then testified in an elections hearing. Easley had answered questions under oath for about five hours on Oct. 28, 2009.
Easley had always denied wrongdoing.
Kenerly, a Republican who has been the district attorney in Rowan County for about two decades, said the deal was fair.
"Critics of this plea agreement should understand that it is a resolution giving consideration to vague statutes and hotly contested evidence," Kenerly said in the statement. "As a result of this plea the former Governor is now a convicted felon, a result that I consider to serve the interests of justice in this case.
The crowd of reporters and photographers had court officials worried about a mob scene as Easley left the courtroom. Judge Donald Stephens, Wake's chief resident judge, sent word through a TV reporter for the media not to chase Easley as he left.
To do so, he said, would expose them to contempt of court charges.