State Transportation Secretary Gene Conti will travel to Wilmington on Friday to dedicate a highway bridge in honor of Lanny T. Wilson, a political fundraiser forced to resign from the state Board of Transportation in 2010 amid state and federal investigations that brought down former Gov. Mike Easley.
It’s the bridge over 23rd Street on the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, a major road on the north side of the city. Local officials who secured the honor for Wilson credit him with bringing state highway money to the Wilmington area.
“In particular, the parkway was finished during the time he was a board member, after we’d had trouble getting it funded,” said Laura Padgett, a Wilmington City Council member. She succeeded Wilson as chairperson of a regional planning board, a seat that Wilson also was forced to relinquish in 2010.
“We needed a very strong voice for southeastern North Carolina, and we had not had a very strong voice at the Board of Transportation until he got there,” Padgett said.
Wilson, a lawyer and developer, was a major fundraiser for Easley, who appointed him to the state board, and for Gov. Bev Perdue, both Democrats. Perdue reappointed Wilson to the board in 2009. She also appointed Conti and current board members who agreed this fall to put his name on the Wilmington bridge.
Senate Republican leader Phil Berger issued a statement rebuking Perdue.
“Now, with a nod to her predecessor and mentor Mike Easley, Perdue is allowing our roads and bridges to bear the namesake of top campaign donors, political cronies, and co-conspirators in the scandals that led to Easley’s felony conviction,” Berger said Thursday. “It’s a good thing she only has one more month to secure her ‘legacy.’”
Wilson could not be reached for comment.
Wilson financed a Carteret County real estate development, Cannonsgate, where Easley received a $137,000 discount on a lot. In an indictment of Easley aide Ruffin Poole – who later was sentenced to a year in federal prison for tax evasion – prosecutors said Wilson gave money and gifts to Poole to secure political access and advance his real estate interests.
The State Board of Elections ruled in 2009 that Easley’s campaign had accepted illegal contributions from Wilson. Wilson testified that he wrote and solicited large checks for the state Democratic Party that were intended for Easley’s benefit. He also testified that he had given money to his fiancée that she then gave Easley, after he had reached the legal limit on his own direct contributions.
Easley later was convicted of a felony related to improper reporting by his campaign of a flight.
But Wilson was not charged with a crime.
Feelings in Wilmington
“Mr. Wilson was never indicted formally, not accused and not convicted of anything,” Padgett said. “Our feeling is, we’re recognizing him for what he did for transportation in our area.”
Conti serves as chairman of the Board of Transportation Road Naming Committee, and he will be the keynote speaker at the Wilson bridge dedication ceremony Friday afternoon. In an email statement released Thursday by a spokeswoman, he said there were no objections when the committee followed its practice of accepting local requests to name highways and bridges.
Conti said the city of Wilmington had made the request “in honor of the work he did on that project and his many other civic endeavors in Wilmington and New Hanover County.”
Local elected officials on the Wilmington planning board were split on the vote to honor Wilson.
“I don’t think we should name it for him,” said Kure Beach Mayor Dean Lambeth. “It should have went to somebody that didn’t have any baggage. He left the board under a cloud. I don’t think anybody who leaves under a cloud like that needs anything named for him.”
Lambeth had favored a proposal to name the bridge for movie producer Frank Capra Jr.
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