Former Gov. Mike Easley was convicted Tuesday of knowingly filing a false campaign report, becoming the first North Carolina governor to admit to a felony in a deal that halted a lengthy federal investigation.
Easley, a Democrat who was governor from 2001 to 2009, appeared before Wake County Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith III in a role unfamiliar to a former crusading prosecutor and two-term attorney general.
The crime: Easley admitted that he failed to report on a required campaign disclosure that he took a $1,600 helicopter ride with a supporter in October 2006.
That violated several campaign laws written to shed light on how monied interests interact with politicians - involvement for Easley that had drawn intense focus from state and federal authorities beginning in early 2009.
Easley's conviction was decided after weeks of behind-the-scenes talks between state and federal prosecutors and his legal team that culminated over the past few days. Court records indicate that authorities had been weighing at least one other unspecified charge.
Easley's voice cracked at times as he answered questions from the judge about whether he understood his plea, known as an Alford guilty plea. It means that he did not admit guilt, but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict him on the charge, which is the lowest level felony in North Carolina.
Easley's wife, Mary, and son, Mike Jr., were not in court because, according to one of Easley's lawyers, it was too painful for them to watch.
"I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does," Easley told the judge. "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."
The judge accepted the plea agreement, which specified that Easley would avoid jail time and receive a fine of $1,000 plus $153 in court costs.
Easley now risks losing his law license - and he enters the history books.
"Any good he did as governor is overshadowed by this," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic Party consultant. "[F]rom now on, whenever someone writes about him, or when his obituary is written some day, the first phrase following the comma after his name will be, 'the first governor convicted of a felony.'"
As part of the plea deal, Easley will avoid any other prosecution, and Easley's lawyers, led by Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh, were pleased with the outcome. They all but declared it a victory for Easley, and Cheshire lashed out at the media in its reporting on Easley, specifically mentioning The News & Observer.
The N&O has reported on a wide range of issues tied to Easley in the past two years, articles that spurred the probes and detailed how Easley benefitted from free air travel; how he was involved in creating a position for his wife at N.C. State University; how his family members had been driving cars they didn't own; and how he received a $137,000 discount on a lot at a coastal development called Cannonsgate at the height of the real estate boom. (The Carolina Journal and Charlotte Observer had previously reported that Easley got a good deal on the lot.)
Meanwhile, Easley's campaign was fined $100,000 by the State Board of Elections. NCSU trustees fired Mary Easley, NCSU Chancellor James Oblinger resigned, and Easley senior aide Ruffin Poole was indicted on more than 50 federal corruption charges and pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Poole awaits sentencing.
The helicopter ride
As part of a state elections hearing last year, Easley friend McQueen Campbell testified that he made repairs to Easley's personal residence in 2004 and 2005 and then filed false invoices in order to get paid from campaign money instead of from Easley personally. Campbell had said he did that on Easley's direction, which Easley disputed.
Campbell had also produced a list of campaign flights he provided for Easley since 1999 that he valued at $87,895 but had not been paid for. Campbell provided another list of personal flights, such as a fishing trip to Florida that he also said he was not paid for. He valued them at $14,000.
Among those flights: The Oct. 2006 helicopter ride that was the subject of Tuesday's plea.
Records show that Campbell picked up Easley near a home he owns in Southport on Oct. 23, 2006, and flew him to a campaign event in Whiteville for Rex Gore, who was running for district attorney. The two then flew on to Raleigh.
The law requires reporting of contributions - money or in-kind services - to ensure that major donors don't exceed specified limits.
Until Tuesday, Easley had denied any wrongdoing.
"We know how it'll all be spun by the pundits," Cheshire said. "But the truth was spoken in this courtroom today. And the truth is no money was illegally or improperly used. There was no corruption. And there was some failure to file appropriate financial reports. That's our position."
As part of the deal, federal authorities said in a letter to Easley's lawyer that they will close their part of the probe, which was known only through grand jury subpoenas issued to various state agencies.
The letter was signed by the lead federal prosecutors, including Republican George E.B. Holding. It says "some of the acts and transactions" the federal authorities reviewed did not warrant prosecution because a standard for presenting those items to the grand jury had 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 use of federal resources and to promote cooperation between state and federal prosecutors.
The state prosecutor who handled the case, William Kenerly of Salisbury, said that his arm of the investigation covered a wide area and that he saw no evidence to warrant charges outside of the campaign.
But Kenerly, a Republican and the district attorney in Rowan County for about two decades, acknowledged in an interview that his limited experience with political cases was a factor in his decision-making.
"For better or for worse, you start putting this in perspective," he said. "And my perspective is violent criminals. I've never dealt with a political case like this before.... I'm comparing it with rapes, murders, armed robberies and drug dealers, which probably is not the right perspective but it's the only one I have."
In a statement issued widely Tuesday, Kenerly acknowledged there would be criticism of his decision, but he said that "hotly contested" facts and "vague statutes" were a key part of why he accepted a plea. Kenerly did not seek re-election this year and will leave office in about a month.
"As a result of this plea," Kenerly said in the statement, "the former governor is now a convicted felon, a result that I consider to serve the interests of justice in this case."
The cost to Easley
The case quickly affected Easley in other ways. He was fingerprinted and had a mug shot taken. As a felon, he is required to submit a DNA sample. An avid hunter, Easley loses the right to carry a firearm.
But he does not appear to lose his voting rights because of a state law that strips the right to vote only from people incarcerated or who are paroled or on probation.
Lawyers convicted of felonies typically are disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar's Disciplinary Hearings Commission.
Cheshire said Easley, who started his political career as a prosecutor on the coast, will fight to keep his law license. He had been on leave from his job at the McGuire Woods law firm in Raleigh.
Katherine Jean, the state bar's general counsel, said she could not speak specifically about the Easley case, but in general lawyers with felonies will lose their license if their actions involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.
"If it reflects adversely on the lawyer's honesty or trustworthiness that would be the deciding line for my office," Jean said.
Cheshire said Easley will likely consent to a temporary suspension but will argue before the commission to keep his license. Cheshire said the commission could look beyond just the facts of the conviction to make a decision.
Cheshire, a lawyer for nearly four decades who has handled some of the state's most prominent cases, said Easley's life had been "destroyed" and that the probes and media scrutiny "really affected this family in a way I've hardly seen in my life."
Easley did not address the media after the hearing, leaving quickly with an escort of three sheriff's deputies.
As he entered an elevator, Easley remained silent and he faced into the back corner of the elevator as the doors slid closed.
Staff writers Michael Biesecker and Anne Blythe contributed to this report.
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