Former Gov. Mike Easley is too broke to pay nearly $95,000 remaining on a fine imposed on his campaign by the state Board of Elections, his lawyer says.
"Governor Easley, because of the investigations and the costs involved, is not in a position to pay this fine personally," Raleigh lawyer Joseph B. Cheshire V said Wednesday. "He took responsibility yesterday for the failures of his campaign and paid a tremendous price that essentially leaves him without a way to support himself and his family, much less incur the costs of the large fine levied on his committee."
The fine on Easley's committee stemmed from testimony last year in a hearing before the elections board that confirmed Easley took dozens of flights that weren't paid for and weren't disclosed. Free flights allowed his campaign to spend money elsewhere.
The fine plus costs totaled $100,000; Easley's committee has paid $5,335.28, but says it is unable to pay the rest.
Lawmakers and others took aim at the issue Wednesday, a day after Easley became the first governor in state history convicted of a felony, and began talking about new efforts to pass reforms aimed at putting more light and accountability on state government.
Easley, a Democrat who served from 2001 to 2009, told a judge Tuesday that he was answerable for his campaign as he was convicted of failing to disclose on campaign reports an October 2006 helicopter flight.
"I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does," Easley said. "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."
Bob Hall, executive director of the campaign finance watchdog Democracy North Carolina, said it was a "bright spot" in the hearing to see Easley say that.
"Now it's Mike Easley's responsibility: he should pay the other $94,000," Hall said. "And the General Assembly should enact a law to clarify that the buck really does stop with the candidate."
Issue to be addressed
Leading lawmakers said they would take it up. The elections board last year sought a law to have candidates personally liable for their campaign's misdeeds, but neither Gov. Bev Perdue nor the Democratic-controlled legislature acted.
"We ought to be able to," said Phil Berger, a Republican who is the incoming leader of the state Senate, "and there are a number of other things that have gone on that argue for us to take up."
Any change would be unlikely to apply to Easley.
Attorney General Roy Cooper said through a spokeswoman that he will push again to make lying to an SBI agent a felony, and to allow for state-level investigative grand juries on public corruption, similar to what the federal authorities have.
Rep. Rick Glazier, a leading Democrat on ethics issues in the state House said the House is likely to take up some type of "pay-to-play" legislation that would limit donations by state contractors.
And it is almost certain that lawmakers will seek to clarify a state law dealing with immunity.
The special state prosecutor on the Easley case, William Kenerly, said Wednesday that the law was a "major factor" in his decision to accept the plea. The law seems to suggest that someone subpoenaed to appear before the elections board cannot be prosecuted elsewhere, though legal interpretations vary.
Elections Chairman Larry Leake said the one-sentence law, which runs 165 words, is vague.
"If you tried to diagram that statute, it would be a nightmare," Leake said. "Attorneys can and have differed on its interpretation. I would hope that the General Assembly would clarify that issue."
Leake also said the legislature should make candidates liable for their fines.
"It's too easy for a campaign committee to go defunct."
Where Easley stands
Because of his felony conviction, Easley is likely to lose his license to practice law.
Records show that he owns homes in Southport and Raleigh. He has a partial interest in a Bald Head Island home. His share of that real estate is valued for taxes at more than $2 million. Records show that since 2008, he has borrowed at least $830,000 against the Southport home.
He also owns a lot in the Cannonsgate development in Carteret County. Records show Easley has a $494,000 loan outstanding on the lot.
He receives an annual state pension of $71,088.
Kenerly said he did not consider forcing Easley to pay the state what it's owed.
"I heard him in court," Kenerly said. "It seems like paying the fine is the honorable thing for him to do."
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