Perdue hires defense lawyers

2008 campaign under scrutiny

Staff writerFebruary 4, 2011 

Gov. Bev Perdue has hired two of the state's most prominent criminal defense lawyers as scrutiny of her 2008 campaign activity continues.

Raleigh lawyers Joseph B. Cheshire V and Wade Smith are both assisting Perdue, whose office declined to comment.

In a statement to The News & Observer, Cheshire said that Perdue, a Democrat who was elected in 2008, asked both of them to be available to her "to answer any questions she might have" after reports surfaced last year that her campaign was under a criminal investigation.

Cheshire said in the statement that he and Smith "are confident that she has not done anything improper or illegal."

"We do not believe that Gov. Perdue is the subject of any investigation," Cheshire wrote.

The State Bureau of Investigation is leading a probe of the Perdue campaign committee that is being overseen by Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, a Democrat.

Willoughby, who could not be reached Thursday, has also said that federal authorities issued subpoenas to possible witnesses, seeking their appearances before a federal grand jury. And Perdue has acknowledged the federal authorities' involvement.

U.S. Attorney George E.B. Holding said Thursday that he would not confirm or deny that a probe exists, and he declined further comment.

Perdue has said she will not discuss the investigations.

In October, she said in a statement that, "As a citizen, a candidate for public office, and an elected official of this state, I have tried my best to abide by all applicable laws, and my administration has been one of the most open in history. I am proud of my record."

The state Board of Elections in August fined Perdue's campaign $30,000 after finding that the campaign failed to properly account for airplane flights, a big expense for campaigns. State law requires campaigns to disclose what they take in and spend. Candidates can be held responsible if they know false reports are being filed.

The Perdue campaign had at first not reported dozens of flights Perdue took. After The N&O began reporting in 2009 on secret flights taken by former Gov. Mike Easley, Perdue's campaign began disclosing unreported flights.

In all, according to amended filings made over a period of months, Perdue took 42 flights on private airplanes in her 2004 and 2008 campaigns that weren't paid for initially. They were valued at $56,000.

Perdue had said the mistakes were the result of a "flawed system" within the campaign.

But elections investigators raised questions, outlining in reports that Perdue's campaign had systems in place dating to at least 2005 to track travel.

In one instance, a lawyer and friend of Perdue's wanted $28,000 in travel he provided to be handled properly, but told investigators that he couldn't get the campaign to focus. One elections board report says the lawyer, Trawick "Buzzy" Stubbs, was "told of a variety of ways the travel payments could be handled and that he often was not comfortable with the information that he was being provided."

Stubbs provided flights in 2007 and 2008, according to documents.

GOP saw 'whitewash'

There has been no evidence in any reports that Perdue was personally involved in the tracking or reporting of flights.

Republicans called the elections fine against Perdue's campaign committee a "whitewash" and pressed for a probe that would put Perdue campaign officials under oath. Then-GOP chairman Tom Fetzer alleged that the elections board's reports show Perdue "knowingly and willingly" broke campaign laws and then tried to cover it up.

In recent years, several criminal cases in North Carolina have arisen out of campaign probes, including ones that led to felony charges against the candidates themselves.

The most recent was former Gov. Mike Easley, who was convicted of a low-level felony in November as part of a plea deal. Easley pleaded guilty to taking a flight but not reporting it on campaign reports.

Former House Speaker Jim Black and state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps both went to prison in the wake of campaign finance probes.

Cheshire and Smith run separate downtown law firms, but between them have represented numerous prominent political figures, among them Easley and Phipps. Others include former U.S. Sen. John Edwards; former U.S. Reps. Frank Ballance and Charles Taylor; and former state Sen. R.C. Soles.

Cheshire and Smith also represented two of the three Duke lacrosse players who were exonerated in 2007 in a case that drew national attention.

Smith is a former chairman of the state Democratic Party and a longtime ally to Perdue.

Cheshire has been active in a range of cases, including separate ones in recent years that led to exonerations for Greg Taylor of Raleigh and Alan Gell of Bertie County. Both men had been convicted on murder charges and were imprisoned before being set free.

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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