Make no mistake. Being a convicted felon is a mark of shame, particularly for a man who worked his way to eight years in the North Carolina governor's mansion largely based on his reputation as a tough district attorney and attorney general. But the end of two years of investigations at the federal and state level came to little, really, yesterday in Wake County Superior Court, where Mike Easley in front of Judge Osmond Smith entered an Alford plea of guilt to a single count of certifying a false campaign report.
He was fined $1,000 and court costs. The count in question involved a helicopter ride from his friend McQueen Campbell, a businessman who frequently flew Easley on campaign trips. The ride, as a service with value, was not reported on a campaign filing as required by law. Easley, in a brief statement in court, acknowledged he was ultimately responsible for the false report.
'Yes, your honor'
It was a strange scene in the darkly paneled courtroom as Smith questioned Easley on the plea details and the former governor answered again and again, "Yes, your honor." He stared straight ahead.
Over the last two years, in a series of reports in The News & Observer, an unflattering picture of the former chief executive's activities emerged - from an unusually attractive deal on property in a coastal development to a lucrative ($170,000 a year) job for his wife, Mary Easley, at N.C. State University, helped by Campbell, whom Easley had appointed to the N.C. State Board of Trustees. A number of Easley's acquaintances were called before the State Board of Elections in a campaign finance investigation that resulted in a $100,000 fine against the campaign and brought a referral to the Wake County district attorney.
The N&O also reported on the Easleys' use of cars and travel. Somewhere along the way, it appeared, the down-to-earth Easleys came to enjoy the perks of power.
But now the Easleys' part in public business is done. Part of Easley's deal with the state included an agreement from U.S. Attorney George Holding not to pursue anything further against him.
An Alford plea is one of those legal curiosities in which a defendant acknowledges that evidence exists sufficient to convict him of a crime, but he does not admit guilt.
Whatever the legal nuances, Mike Easley, once the whimsical, glib, clever politician who led the state through a difficult budget crisis, now stands convicted of a felony. And that is likely to be among the first sentences in any recounting of his career.
The path to yesterday's plea, however, still needs clarifying. Holding, a Republican appointee of President George W. Bush, was allowed to stay in office largely to pursue the Easley matter. Much time and money was invested in that investigation, which presumably had many strands.
Holding should explain to the public why he decided to fold his investigation as part of the state's plea agreement with Easley. He had allowed Ruffin Poole, a former top Easley aide, to plead guilty to a single charge in exchange for his cooperation. Poole faced a multiple-count indictment.
As for special state prosecutor William Kenerly of Salisbury (called in because Wake D.A. Colon Willoughby had ties to Easley), he seemed to anticipate that the public might be surprised at the deal. Kenerly made no apologies and said that basically the case involved "vague statutes and hotly contested evidence." He noted also that there seems to be confusion over whether a state law gives immunity to people who testify before the elections board, as Easley did. On those scores, the General Assembly is on notice.
So the legal battle is apparently over. But for North Carolina and its citizens, the outcome is an embarrassing one. This is, after all, supposed to be a "good government" state, where governors do not become felons.