Easley agrees to second year of law license suspension

acurliss@newsobserver.comJanuary 7, 2012 

  • Former Gov. Mike Easley came under scrutiny in 2008 and 2009 by The News & Observer and then state and federal agents, who examined a range of perks Easley accepted while governor. The criminal probes were resolved by a plea deal on a felony count in late 2010.

    Easley, a lawyer and longtime prosecutor prior to winning the governor's office in 2000, also agreed to a temporary suspension of his law license as a result of the felony plea.

    On Friday, state officials agreed to a deal that suspends Easley's license for a total of two years, including the past year. Easley will be able to practice law again in Dec. 2012.

  • The N.C. State Bar is a state agency responsible for the licensing, regulation and discipline of lawyers in North Carolina.

    It is separate from the North Carolina Bar Association, a voluntary professional organization that provides training and other services to lawyers and the public. The two are often confused.

    In handling discipline, the bar acts much like the regular court system. Bar staffers act as investigators and prosecutors. The bar has lawyers who sit on a grievance committee, which is much like a court's grand jury. Final discipline is decided by members of a Disciplinary Hearing Commission.

Former Gov. Mike Easley reached a deal Friday with the N.C. State Bar to have his law license suspended for one more year, a resolution that brings to an end a series of investigations that surrounded Easley as he left office in early 2009.

Easley, a Democrat and two-term governor, was convicted of a felony after reaching a plea deal in late 2010 related to his campaign's failure to disclose on a required report that Easley took a private helicopter flight to a fundraiser for another candidate. Easley is the first governor in state history to be convicted of a felony, and the plea ended long-running state and federal criminal probes into a range of issues that enveloped him three years ago.

Easley, 61, a lawyer since 1976 and also a former two-term state attorney general, still was subject to possible discipline by the bar, the state agency that regulates and disciplines lawyers.

A felony conviction for a lawyer typically leads to more severe punishment than a suspension, often the permanent loss of a law license, according to the bar. In a written complaint, the bar's general counsel, Katherine Jean, and the chairwoman of the bar's grievance committee said Easley showed "professional unfitness" as a lawyer and was subject to some level of discipline as a result of the felony conviction.

Jean said she researched past cases, including ones in which lawyers were addicted to drugs and became felons or were prosecuted in federal courts for improper tax filings. She said a two-year suspension of Easley's license was appropriate.

The written agreement filed Friday lists incorrect information in citing factors for why the lesser discipline than normal was warranted.

The agreement says: "(T)here is no evidence that Easley had actual knowledge of the content of the campaign finance report; his denial of such knowledge is credible because he did not sign the report and because when the report was prepared and filed he was Governor and was involved in governing the State." It lists other factors, such as the felony being of a low level, that Easley is remorseful and there is "no evidence of dishonest conduct."

But Easley was not governor when the report in question was filed. The campaign disclosure report that led to Easley's felony was filed by his campaign in April 2009 - four months after he left office.

And it was filed because of questions about a vehicle driven by Easley's son that was not owned by the Easley family.

Easley offered differing explanations about the use of the vehicle. But on April 17, 2009, the Easley campaign filed a new report that described the vehicle as a campaign vehicle for several years and a personal one after that. That same day, Easley's campaign lawyer, John Wallace, wrote to elections officials and said the campaign had determined the proper way to account for the vehicle and was updating all its previous reports.

While detailing the use of the vehicle, the updated filings did not disclose a separate helicopter flight taken by Easley in October 2006 that formed the basis of his felony plea. Prosecutors said in court documents that Easley caused the false report to be filed and knew it was not correct.

Neither Jean nor Easley's lawyer could be reached for comment about the written findings.

'A man of integrity'

Easley's law license has been suspended since December 2010, a voluntary move Easley made following his conviction.

Easley worked at the McGuireWoods law firm in Raleigh after leaving the governor's office, but left that job as the criminal investigations wrapped up. The former governor indicated through lawyers that he still wanted to practice law someday, including with his son, Michael Jr., also a lawyer.

Easley's annual state pension is $71,088. Under the deal struck Friday, Easley would be allowed to practice law again after Dec. 8, 2012.

The hearing commission's chairwoman, lawyer Sharon B. Alexander of Hendersonville, said Friday the three panel members were unanimous in accepting the two-year suspension.

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

The order specifically finds the suspension necessary as punishment for the "negative impact of defendant's actions on the public's perception of the (legal) profession."

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

Alan M. 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 October 2006 private helicopter trip that was valued at $1,600. In not disclosing it on campaign reports, prosecutors said Easley broke six state laws.

Easley did not receive prison time for the low-level felony and was fined $1,000.

Schneider said Easley took responsibility for the "one plea with respect to one flight." In a statement, he said the "investigations revealed, and the facts show very clearly, that Governor Easley is not a dishonest person. To the contrary, he is a man of integrity and good character."

Lots of perks

Schneider highlighted what the special state prosecutor, William Kenerly of Rowan County, said at the time of Easley's felony plea - that state agents looked but did not find any noncampaign issue on which to proceed with a prosecution of Easley.

At the time, Kenerly, a veteran Republican prosecutor, said a state law seemed to grant immunity to Easley because he offered testimony in a state elections board hearing. Kenerly said the immunity law was a "major factor" in his agreeing to reach a plea deal.

The widely followed elections hearing, in November 2009, was the last time Easley talked at any length in public, and he disputed questions about possible wrongdoing in his campaign during a full day of testimony.

Schneider said Easley would not agree to be interviewed Friday.

The most damaging account was from a longtime friend, former N.C. State board of trustees chairman McQueen Campbell, who testified that he arranged for repairs on Easley's personal residence in Raleigh and billed the cost to Easley's campaign at the direction of the governor. The repairs were listed on required disclosure forms as flights to hide the true purpose, Campbell testified.

Records and testimony showed Easley also accepted numerous free flights while campaigning.

The elections board fined Easley's campaign $100,000 and referred that and other issues to a state prosecutor. Easley's campaign has paid $5,335 of it, elections officials said Friday.

By that time, reports in The News & Observer showed that, among other things, Easley received a $137,000 discount on a waterfront lot at a coastal development and that Easley was involved in getting his wife, Mary, a high-paying 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 said he could not recall any of it.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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