RALEIGH — Former Gov. Mike Easley is a courtroom veteran, but he seemed to be sitting at the wrong table in Wake County Courthouse Tuesday.
For much of his career, Easley had pulled his chair up to the prosecutor's table; helping put away corrupt politicians, drug dealers, and later scam artists and other crooks, first as a district attorney and then as attorney general. As a pistol-packing small-town DA in the southeast, Easley put behind bars two of the three sheriffs in his district on corruption charges.
But Tuesday, a visibly shaken Easley was at the defense table, surrounded by high-priced criminal defense lawyers.
He was about to cop a plea to campaign law violations that would make him North Carolina's first former governor to become a felon.
How had Easley made the journey from the prosecutor's table to the defense table - from Mr. Clean to felon?
It is apparent to me - as someone who has known and liked Easley since the 1980s - that he has not come to grips with what has happened.
Easley had little to say Tuesday, basically chalking up his failure to report corporate campaign flights as a bookkeeping error. He used a neat legality called an Alford plea, which allowed him to enter a guilty plea without admitting guilt.
But his legal mouthpiece had plenty to say.
Joseph B. Cheshire V blamed Easley's problems on a vendetta by the news media in general, and The News & Observer in particular, for trying to bring down Easley with a series of critical stories.
"These things succeeded in trashing Governor Easley and in trashing his wife and in trashing his family and in trashing the state's political process," Cheshire said. "These articles destroyed the very life of two people I have known since the mid-1970s, who have both given 30 years of their life to public service."
They "were made out to be horribly corrupt people," Cheshire said.
That was a change from earlier this year, when the Easley circle was blaming the former governor's problems on an unholy alliance between the Republican U.S. Attorney's Office and The News & Observer, with its history of editorial page support for Democrats.
But on Tuesday after the U.S. attorney cut a deal with no jail time, Cheshire couldn't say enough nice things about the U.S. attorney. Cheshire said the lack of charges showed the stories were overblown.
But the reality is that Easley made a series of questionable judgments. He took multiple corporate plane trips without paying for them; he received a $137,000 discount on a piece of beach property from a real estate developer who was seeking regulatory favors from the state; he charged his campaign for home repairs and then, according to the testimony of a colleague, approved the filing of an insurance claim for those same repairs; and his family received a free car from an automobile dealer.
Easley had an explanation or a denial for everything. But for anyone attuned to ethical niceties, alarm bells should have been going off when these offers were made.
I have always liked Easley. He is a man of considerable charm, one of the most unpretentious political leaders I have ever met, and a man who seemed genuinely interested in moving the state forward in many ways. He is blessed with a wonderful family.
When he entered the governorship, Easley was a bit of the anti-politician. He was independent to a fault, didn't return calls to his fundraisers and famously didn't like to attend political events.
But somewhere, something went awry.
Easley's eight years as governor seemed to give him a sense of entitlement, his legendary cheapness got the better of him, and his self-imposed isolation meant that there were few voices of caution around him. And he found that American democracy is fueled by political cash - lots of it.
Maybe some day he will realize that he was the victim not of some vendetta, but of his own misjudgments. Or maybe not.
Many will feel that Easley got off lightly - $1,000 fine and court costs.
But Easley will pay a much steeper price. He is facing large legal bills, his legal career is in question, and his once fine reputation is in tatters. It is not the ending one would have predicted for a one-time crusading prosecutor.
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