From the Editor

Drescher: Good reporting revealed Easley's gifts, favors

The N&O uncovered the facts; his lawyer denounced paper; prosecutors said thanks

Executive EditorNovember 27, 2010 

Joseph B. Cheshire V, who represented former Gov. Mike Easley, is a good lawyer who negotiated a good deal for his client.

As accomplished as he is as an attorney, Cheshire might be even better as a showman. Ladies and gentlemen, he put on a heck of a show Tuesday, after his client agreed to a deal that led to his felony conviction.

After the hearing, Cheshire met with reporters and criticized at length The News & Observer's coverage of Easley. Easley, he said, had done almost nothing wrong, but The N&O was out to get the former guv'nah and had stirred up the people against him.

Cheshire was alternately outraged and humorous. Almost as if he had practiced.

Cheshire said Easley, a gifted mimic, could be a comedian someday. Maybe, but Cheshire is ready for the stage now.

The guy is good. All his shows are entertaining.

It was only two weeks ago that Cheshire, who represents the tutor at the heart of cheating allegations involving UNC football players, said: "She gave several years of her life trying to uplift, educate and enhance the lives of student-athletes that she worked with and befriended. All of these young men were of the highest caliber. ... She is deeply saddened, particularly as it has affected the young men she cared so much about."

I almost cried.

In defending Easley to reporters, Cheshire again laid it on thick and covered a lot of ground. He said he had known Mary and Mike Easley for a long time and they are fine people. He said Mike Easley just wants to help people. He said the Cheshires had been in North Carolina since 1652.

While critical of our coverage, he didn't say The N&O was wrong in any story.

In the last two years, we've run dozens of stories on gifts and favors accepted by Gov. Easley.

Cheshire does not dispute any of our reporting. When reporters asked him about the $137,000 discount Easley received on a coastal lot, Cheshire declined to discuss the facts of that case. Or any other.

Impeccable reporting

Cheshire cannot dispute our reporting because the facts are the facts. All of our reporting was based on sworn testimony, on-the-record interviews and documents.

I've reviewed several of the key stories about Easley. They were right on target. This is some of the best reporting ever to appear in this paper. Our peers think so, too. We were one of six finalists this year for Harvard's Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Our Sept. 11, 2009, story about the coastal land deal was an unusually revealing piece of journalism.

We obtained a closing document that showed Easley had received a 25 percent discount on the lot. His closing attorney hid the true price of the lot, reporting the original sales price to the register of deeds. Easley had insisted for years that he didn't get a special deal and paid the listed price.

The deal was closed shortly after the Easley administration granted environmental permits to the developer.

Easley and his lawyers did everything they could to keep us from reporting about the various gifts he received when he was governor.

As governor (he left office in January 2009 after two terms), Easley would not release his travel records. Doing so would compromise his security, he said, even though months or years had passed since he took various trips.

When Gov. Bev Perdue took office, she ordered the records released. That's when we began to crack open the secret life of Mike Easley.

Easley himself had issued an executive order saying all gifts of more than $200 must be reported. That order was in place for most of Easley's governorship. But apparently his order didn't apply to him.

Favors revealed

Our reporting showed that Easley took flights from supporters that were either free or not reported, violating campaign laws. One supporter later reported that he provided Easley with $100,000 in flights - most political, some personal - that he was never paid for.

In addition to the coastal lot, we showed that for six years Easley's son drove an SUV owned by a car dealer without paying anything for the vehicle.

We showed that Easley received a waiver from monthly dues at an exclusive golf club - worth about $50,000 over eight years.

When we published articles about these unreported gifts, Easley's lawyers tried to intimidate us. One of his lawyers threatened - three times - to file suit. He never did.

Let's take stock of what's happened since The N&O and other news outlets began reporting on Easley and associates.

Easley and a former senior aide have been found guilty of felonies.

Easley's campaign has been fined $100,000 by the State Board of Elections.

Lawmakers passed a reform bill that requires elected officials to file ethics disclosures covering their final year in office and makes it clear that taking a campaign contribution in exchange for action is a bribe.

The chancellor, provost and board chairman at N.C. State resigned under scrutiny of the hiring of Gov. Easley's wife and a substantial raise she received. Gov. Easley worked behind the scenes to get her the job.

Much ado about nothing, as Cheshire said? Hardly.

The ultimate judges

Cheshire says that because Easley was found guilty of only one felony related to campaign reporting, there was no corruption.

Whether Gov. Easley acted ethically and appropriately in accepting these gifts is up to the people of North Carolina to decide.

Cheshire praised the prosecutors. The prosecutors praised us.

William Kenerly, the state prosecutor, said reporters had done a great service in uncovering "distasteful" behavior. George Holding, the federal prosecutor, agreed.

"But for the hard work of a cadre of investigative journalists in the Capital City, North Carolinians would have been in the dark about some of the most shameful practices of our elected officials," Holding said.

"The media coverage of this has been intense, but he was the governor of North Carolina and that can be expected. The standard of proof for a scandal is different than the standard of proof for an indictment. Much different."

Our job was to expose the pay-to-play culture that has permeated Raleigh. We and other news outlets have done that.

As for Easley, in office he was often mysterious and reclusive.

He disappeared for long stretches. He often avoided the public and reporters. He would not release an accurate list of his weekly appointments or his travel schedule.

He didn't want you to know what he was up to. Through good reporting, he was exposed.

Not even Joe Cheshire, as good as he is, can change that.

john.drescher@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4515

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