Elections board member says Bar should require Easley pay fine

Staff writerJanuary 11, 2012 

A member of the state Board of Elections says that former Gov. Mike Easley should pay an outstanding $94,665 fine as a condition of getting his law license back.

Chuck Winfree, a member of the elections board since 2001, said the reasoning behind a deal struck by the N.C. State Bar to settle an investigation of Easley and grant him a two-year law license suspension is inadequate as long as the fine is unpaid. Easley, a Democrat, is the former two-term governor who was the subject of state and federal investigations that resulted in a plea deal in 2010 and a felony conviction.

The bar last week consented in an agreement with Easley to a punishment that is less than disbarment and it said was warranted for six reasons, one of them being that "Easley accepts personal responsibility for his own actions and for the actions of his campaign committee."

Winfree said it is "lip service" to conclude Easley took responsibility for the campaign as long as the fine is unpaid.

"The State Bar needs to make payment a condition," Winfree said in an interview. "Otherwise, it's all window dressing."

Attempts to reach board chairman Larry Leake were unsuccessful. Winfree said he is working to see if the full elections board will make a formal request of the N.C. State Bar about the issue.

"I can certainly say that the board wants its fines paid," Winfree said.

The elections board is a state agency that oversees elections and enforces election law.

The bar is a state agency that regulates lawyers.

The elections board is appointed by the governor on the recommendation of the two major political parties. The majority is from the party of the governor. Currently, the elections board is made up of three members and has two vacant seats.

Winfree is the lone Republican on the board at the moment. He noted that the board's decision to fine Easley's campaign, made in late 2009, was unanimous. There has been discussion in recent years of legislation to hold candidates personally responsible for the misdeeds of their campaigns, but it has not advanced.

The fine against Easley's campaign was for $100,000 and it was tied to scores of free flights Easley had taken while he was a candidate. Officials say $5,335 has been paid.

In reaching a decision last week to suspend Easley's law license for two years despite his conviction in 2010 of a felony, the bar said that Easley did not have "actual knowledge" of a false campaign report that led to the felony.

The bar also said that Easley is "genuinely remorseful." Easley did not appear at the hearing dealing with his law license. His lawyer told disciplinary hearing commissioners that the former two-term governor had accepted responsibility for the campaign by entering an Alford guilty plea tied to a single flight that wasn't reported. That type of plea allows a defendant to continue to assert innocence but legally acknowledges there was enough evidence to yield a conviction.

The disciplinary hearing commission chairwoman, lawyer Sharon B. Alexander of Hendersonville, said that commissioners would not comment on the decision making because their deliberations are considered private.

"I cannot and will not disregard our obligation to respect that privacy," Alexander wrote in an email message. "Please accept this as a response from all members of the hearing committee and the only one that you will receive."

-- J. Andrew Curliss

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