Explosive testimony at Easley hearing

October 26, 2009 8:35:04 PM PDT
The North Carolina State Board of Elections began a hearing Monday on former governor Mike Easley's campaign financing with explosive testimony from campaign supporter McQueen Campbell. Among other things, the board is looking at flights Easley took on the private planes of supporters. Such flights are considered campaign contributions and may have exceeded donation limit rules.

In his testimony, Campbell, a former North Carolina State University trustee, acknowledged providing flights to Easley.

The board asked Campbell who asked for the flights and if any records were kept. Campbell said he starting keeping records after the governor asked him to and a copy of the records was provided to the board. Campbell testified there were 61 flights he provided to the governor, but he said not all were campaign related.

When asked about reporting the flights to elections officials, Campbell said he expected that the Easley campaign was taking care of that.

Campbell also testified about repairs made to an Easley home. He said he arranged for two repairs - one for around $4,000 and another for around $6,000.

When asked who paid for the repairs, Campbell responded "I did."

Campbell said when he called Easley to be reimbursed for the repairs, Easley asked him about unbilled flights taken on his plane.

Campbell said he understood that to mean "for me to bill the campaign for unbilled flights to cover those amounts."

"So did the Easley campaign indirectly pay for repairs to the Easley home?" asked Chairman Larry Leake.

"That's correct" said Campbell.

Documents were also introduced that showed Governor Easley filed claims with his insurance company for the repairs and was paid.

Under cross examination from an Easley attorney, McQueen was asked if Easley told him directly to file a false invoice.

"I understood what he meant," McQueen responded.

Later in the day, Rebecca McGhee, an assistant to the Easley campaign treasurer, testified that Governor Easley instructed her to pay the invoice from Campbell - even though it was not accompanied by supporting documents that were usual with travel bills.

Car dealer testifies

Later in the afternoon, Robert Bleecker, a North Carolina car dealer, testified about an SUV provided to the Easley family in 2002.

Bleecker said the vehicle was a 2000 GMC Yukon with 77,000 miles on it worth $16,000 to be used by Easley's son Michael. The deal was treated as a lease, but Bleecker was not paid for the vehicle until early 2009, and his dealership covered the taxes and insurance until then.

"This was not a usual deal," Bleecker admitted under questioning.

But Bleecker said he expected to be paid for the SUV and he was.

Bleecker said he got two checks. One came from the Governor's wife Mary for the residual value of the car, and a second came from Easley and his campaign for the use of the car.

Contributors say money for Dems went to Easley

Lanny Wilson - a former state DOT board member and longtime Democratic Party contributor - testified Monday about checks he wrote to a "Democratic Party special fund" in 2003. Wilson said the Easley campaign encouraged him to contribute to the fund even after he had reached the maximum allowable individual donation limit for the campaign. Wilson says he was told the donations were legal and that money from the fund would go to pay Easley campaign expenses.

North Carolina campaign law says contributions can't be given to a party for exclusive use by a single candidate.

After Wilson, developer Nick Garret talked about a check he wrote to the North Carolina Democratic Party. In the memo line, the check says the money was for the Easley campaign. Chairman Leake asked Garret if he believed that giving money to the Democratic Party specifically for Easley was legal. Garret replied he believed it was.

More witnesses expected

Dozens of witnesses are expected to testify this week.

Ruffin Pool, Easley's general counsel while he was governor was called to testify Monday afternoon. But, Pool is claiming attorney client privilege and filed a lawsuit to quash the subpoena. A judge agreed Monday and he won't be forced to appear. Leake asked the board's attorney to appeal the ruling.

Click here for the full list of witnesses (.pdf)

The witness also list includes top state Democratic Party officials, former aids, other campaign contributors and Highway Patrol Captain Alan Melvin, who headed Easley's security detail from 2003 to 2007, and kept records of Easley's travel.

"They're looking more strictly at the campaign finance practices," said Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina. "But once they start to draw that string about how was the adherence to those laws, something else may pop up."

Hall says North Carolina taxpayers could learn much more information about what went on behind the Easley scenes.

"It may turn out that someone else did make a political donation in exchange for some kind of benefit," Hall said.

The hearing is expected to last at least a week. At the end, the board has several options. It could exonerate Easley, rebuke him, or impose a fine.

"They can fine a campaign for violating the rules about disclosure, they can penalize them up to triple the amount of money involved in a wrong act, they could refer perceived criminal violations to the district attorney," Hall said.

Easley also under federal investigation

The BOE hearing is not likely to be the end of Easley's problems. He's under federal investigation not only for his campaign financing, but for a real estate deal and the way in which his wife Mary got a job at NC State University. He has not been charged with any crime, and has told ABC11 in past interviews that any suggestion of wrongdoing is "ridiculous."

It's not clear what day Easley will testify or if he will speak at all. He can claim his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself in possible future criminal proceedings.

BOE hearings have been the starting point for criminal cases in the past.

Former agriculture commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and legislators Jim Black and Thomas Wright all went before the NC Board of Elections and ended up behind bars.

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