State Bar to re-examine Easley order

Punishment ruling includes wrong data, bar says. It is unclear if penalty will change.

acurliss@newsobserver.comJanuary 9, 2012 

The N.C. State Bar will revisit the disciplinary order that suspended for two years the law license of former Gov. Mike Easley - a punishment that allows the former two-term Democrat to practice law again in December, despite a felony conviction.

The punishment order contains incorrect information, the bar's general counsel confirmed in an email after a report Saturday in The News & Observer.

It is not clear that the overall thrust of the decision to suspend Easley's license for two years will change because of the erroneous information, which described the reasoning for why Easley was receiving the level of punishment he did. The order cites several factors that "particularly" warranted the suspension of Easley's law license instead of a disbarment, which is the loss of the right to practice law.

Among them were findings by the bar that Easley did not know about the content of the false campaign report that led to his conviction; that Easley's denial of such knowledge was "credible" because he didn't sign the report and was governing at the time it was prepared and filed; and that Easley has accepted responsibility for his actions and for "the actions of his campaign committee."

Court records, testimony and interviews raise questions about those factors. Easley was not governor when the report in question was filed; it was filed four months after he left office. A state prosecutor said in court documents that Easley "knew the amended report was not true and correct." And critics say Easley hasn't accepted responsibility for the campaign's misdeeds because $94,700 of a $100,000 fine against the campaign remains unpaid.

Katherine Jean, the general counsel at the state bar, acknowledged some incorrect information but did not indicate that it would lead to a substantial change in the outcome of the case. She said she will bring it to the attention of the Disciplinary Hearing Commission, which accepted the two-year suspension.

Jean wrote in an email message: "I ... agree that there is language in the order that does not accurately reflect what was intended. The order inadvertently fails to identify the distinction in the time periods when the defendant was Governor and when the different reports were filed. I will bring this issue to the attention of the DHC and request that the order be clarified."

Typically, according to the bar, a felony conviction of a lawyer leads to the "most severe discipline," which the bar says is "often disbarment."

Convicted in 2010

Easley was convicted of a felony in November 2010 after reaching a plea deal to end lengthy state and federal investigations of him. Easley entered what's known as an Alford plea in state court, which means he can maintain innocence, but pleads guilty and agrees there was sufficient evidence for a judge or jury to find him guilty of the crime.

Easley's conviction was tied to the filing by his campaign of a false disclosure report that was in violation of six state laws because the report did not disclose a $1,600 helicopter flight Easley took in October 2006. Easley was fined $1,000 for the low-level felony.

While Easley's plea ended the criminal investigations, the state bar also looked into the case because it is the state agency responsible for regulating and disciplining lawyers in North Carolina. Easley, a former state attorney general, has been a lawyer since 1976 and was subject to professional discipline because of the felony, the bar said.

The bar ended its probe last month by filing a complaint that said Easley showed "professional unfitness" as a lawyer. A hearing was set for Friday. As the hearing began, the sides announced the agreement to the two-year suspension.

At the hearing on Friday, Jean had said that she researched past cases in trying to decide the extent of Easley's punishment.

Jean said that lawyers who were convicted of felonies for drug abuse or for improper federal tax filings had also received punishments less than disbarment. Those reasons were not listed in the written order.

Where the buck stops

Easley testified in a hearing at the end of 2009 that he was involved in the efforts that caused the false report to be filed, which surfaced after he left office.

The report was filed to clear up questions about a vehicle his son was driving but that the Easley family did not own. Campaign reports were amended to show the vehicle was campaign vehicle that was eventually paid for.

But the amended report - like one before it - didn't reveal the helicopter flight, in violation of state law.

Easley also has come under criticism for not paying in full a $100,000 fine issued against his campaign, tied to free flights he received.

Easley said in court at the time of his plea deal that, "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."

Easley's committee has paid $5,335 toward the fine, according to elections officials, but ran out of money and incurred more than $200,000 in debts, mostly on lawyers.

William Kenerly, a veteran Republican prosecutor from Rowan County who handled the Easley case, said after the conviction that paying the campaign fine in full would be the "honorable thing for him to do."

Bob Hall, executive director of the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy North Carolina, said at the time and again in an interview Sunday that it was good Easley said that in court.

"I don't understand how they could say he's taken responsibility for the campaign when the fine isn't paid," Hall said. "How could anyone say that?"

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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