Easley's law license stays suspended for 1 more year

Staff writerJanuary 6, 2012 

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Former Gov. Mike Easley appears before a hearing at the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, NC, on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010, where he plead guilty to one felony charge, ending a long-running state and federal investigation into his actions while he was in office.

TED RICHARDSON — TED RICHARDSON - trichard@newsobserver.com

Former Gov. Mike Easley has reached a deal with the N.C. State Bar to have his law license suspended for one more year, a resolution that ends investigations stemming from controversies that surrounded Easley as he left office in early 2009.

Easley, a Democrat who was a two-term governor and state Attorney General before that, was convicted after a plea deal in late 2010 of committing a felony related to improper reporting by his campaign of a flight. Easley, who turns 62 in March, has been a lawyer since 1976.

The bar's general counsel, Katherine Jean, told a panel of three disciplinary hearing commissioners today that her office had investigated issues related to Easley and could not find that Easley had knowingly engaged in wrongful conduct. The bar is the state agency responsible for the discipline of lawyers in North Carolina.

Jean said Easley had "played no role in the preparation or the filing of the reports" that were part of his felony plea. Jean said that Easley had not signed the illegal campaign reports but had relied on his professional staff to do that.

Jean said that there is no evidence of "dishonest conduct" by Easley and that he is remorseful, findings the hearing commission accepted.

Typically, a felony conviction for a lawyer leads to more severe punishment, often disbarment. In a complaint, Jean and the chairman of the bar's grievance committee said that Easley had shown professional unfitness as a lawyer and was subject to some level of discipline as a result of the conviction.

Drawing on past cases, including ones in which lawyers were addicted to drugs or prosecuted in federal courts for improper tax filings, Jean said that a two-year suspension of Easley's license was appropriate.

Easley's law license has been suspended since Dec. 2010 as a result of the felony plea in state court. But the former governor had indicated through lawyers that he still wanted to practice law some day. His son, Michael Jr., is a lawyer.

Under the deal struck Friday, Easley would be allowed to practice law after Dec. 8, 2012. He had worked at the McGuireWoods law firm in Raleigh after leaving the governor's office, but left that job as the criminal investigation neared its end.

The hearing commission's chairwoman, lawyer Sharon B. Alexander of Hendersonville, said the three panel members were unanimous in resolving the status of Easley's law license.

"We find it to be absolutely appropriate," Alexander said before signing a consent order of discipline.

The order says that Easley is subject to the two-year total suspension for the "negative impact of defendant's actions on the public's perception of the (law) profession."

The order says that Easley could have been disbarred because of the felony conviction. But the order says that other factors led to the lesser punishment, including that Easley has had no prior discipline as a lawyer.

The order also found an "absence of dishonest or selfish motive" as well as remorse by Easley and that other sanctions had been imposed against him in other proceedings.

Easley was not present for Friday's hearing, which lasted about 20 minutes.

Alan Schneider, a lawyer for Easley, emphasized to the panel that state and federal agents -- and now the bar -- had thoroughly probed Easley and did not bring charges beyond those related to the single campaign flight, an October 2006 helicopter trip to another candidate's fundraiser.

Easley's felony plea deal had been reached in state court, but it ended a separate federal probe. At the time, authorities said in documents that other charges against Easley had been considered.

Schneider said Easley had taken responsibility for that "one plea with respect to one flight" and wanted to move forward with "grace and dignity."

Schneider said that bar officials reviewed a trove of information about Easley but did not take action on anything but the felony plea. Bar officials cannot confirm that or comment on it because state law requires confidentiality of bar investigations, but they did not object to Schneider's characterization.

Schneider highlighted what the special state prosecutor, William Kenerly of Rowan County, had said at the time of Easley's felony plea -- that state agents had not found any non-campaign issue on which to proceed with a prosecution of Easley.

At the time, Kenerly had said a state law seemed to grant immunity to Easley because he testified in a state elections board hearing. Kenerly said that was a "major factor" in his reaching a plea deal.

At that elections hearing, a longtime friend of Easley's, former N.C. State board of trustees chairman McQueen Campbell, had testified that he had arranged for repairs on Easley's personal residence and billed the cost to Easley's campaign at the direction of the governor. Easley denied any wrongdoing.

The elections board fined Easley's campaign $100,000 and referred the issues to a state prosecutor.

By then, reports in The N&O had also shown that, among other issues, Easley received a $137,000 discount on a lot at a coastal development and that Easley was involved in getting his wife, Mary, a job at N.C. State. Mary Easley was later fired. Campbell resigned from the NCSU board. The controversy also led to the departure of Chancellor James Oblinger, who records showed was involved in the hiring of the first lady but had said he could not recall any of it.

Kenerly said at the time that "distasteful" behavior didn't always mean that a crime occurred.

The federal prosecutor at the time, George Holding, said a change in the federal "honest services" law, which had ensnared numerous politicians and businessmen, also made a prosecution of Easley unlikely.

"The standard of proof for a scandal is different than the standard of proof for an indictment," Holding said after Easley's plea.

acurliss@newsobserver.com

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