Easley attorney asks to send case to DA

October 30, 2009 6:23:54 AM PDT
Thursday evening, former North Carolina Governor Mike Easley's attorney told the State Board of Elections he wants the case to go to the DA to prove Easley is not a criminal.The board is investigating Easley's campaign activities - including flights he took on the private planes of supporters, a vehicle he received from a North Carolina car dealer, and how money given to the North Carolina Democratic Party may have been used for Easley campaigns.

After four days of testimony, within the last hour Thursday, Thomas Hicks stood up to make his statement.

"My client has asked me to send this to the district attorney," Hicks told the five-member board.

At the end of the hearings, the board has the option of referring a case to the Wake County district attorney, but the former governor beat them to it.

"Do I think there's enough evidence for a criminal case, absolutely not," Hicks said. "Please send a report to the district attorney. We want this to be fully investigated."

However, DA Colon Willoughby's and Easley's relationship goes back years, which could create a conflict of interest.

In a written statement Willoughby says, "It's not appropriate to comment until the Board of Elections takes an action. If there's a role for this office I'll make further comment at that time."

The board will go into closed session at 9 a.m. Friday to discuss legal matters and hopefully make a decision about Easley hearing. The board plans to be back open to the public by 9:45 a.m.

Board hears from top Democrat

Earlier Thursday, the State Board of Elections heard from former North Carolina Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Falmlen.

Falmlen was questioned about party fundraising and whether the Easley campaign had authority over hundreds of thousands of dollars it raised on the party's behalf.

Falmlen told board members that the party assisted Easley with staffing, polling, and research. All was legal, he said. Falmlen said the Easley campaign made requests for funding, but they were not considered as commands, even though Easley was considered to be the leader of the party in North Carolina because he was the Governor.

Falmlen said the party was careful to make sure it was following the law.

There had been testimony earlier in the week about a "Governor's Fund" set up through the party to funnel money through the party to the Easley campaign. But Falmlen denied there was any such arrangement.

Falmlen said there was a Governor's Fund, but it was merely an accounting technique that kept track of money that came from Easley donors - only for accounting purposes - and that money went into the party's general fund - not specifically to Easley's campaign.

"Was there any discussion with the representatives of the Easley campaign that those funds should be restricted?" asked Board Chairman Larry Leake.

"No sir," said Falmlen.

Leake asked if the party ever assisted the Easley campaign with getting money from donors who had reached their maximum personal donation level under campaign law.

"No sir," Falmlen answered.

Easley contradicts testimony

In his testimony Wednesday, Easley flatly denied ever telling a long-time friend to falsify records.

That was after former NC State trustee McQueen Campbell told the board Monday that he and Easley had conspired to hide campaign payments for a personal expense - repairs to a home owned by the former governor.

Campbell said that he organized repairs to the home and that when he asked the Governor for money, he was led to understand he should bill the campaign for air travel to cover the amounts - meaning campaign money was used to make the repairs.

"I understood what he meant," McQueen said.

But Wednesday, Easley said he had no recollection of any such conversation.

"I didn't tell him to send them. I didn't indicate for him to send them. I didn't express or imply any indication or suggestion that he should do that, or that I would approve it, or that I would condone it. It never, ever happened," testified Easley.

Rebecca McGhee, an assistant to the Easley campaign treasurer, testified earlier this week that Governor Easley instructed her to pay the invoices from Campbell - even though they were not accompanied by supporting documents that were usual with travel bills.

Easley admitted Thursday that he did call McGhee and told her to pay the bill, but he said the invoices - in his mind - had nothing to do with home repairs. He said he believed the money was for flights.

"I don't know why [Campbell] would have submitted a bogus bill for something he could have gotten a check for," said Easley.

Easley instead said he had discussed buying blocks of time on his aircraft with Campbell, and believed the invoices were for that.

Hicks says Campbell deserves the blame for the current situation.

"Why would the government do that," Hicks said. "It just didn't happen. It would be a foolish thing for a man to do."

Campbell provided dozens of free flights

Easley also testified that he was unaware that dozens of private flights that Campbell provided were never paid for by the campaign until the media started asking about it earlier this year.

The total value of the flights was around $87,000. By law, campaigns have to report "in-kind" contributions - donations of goods or services they would have otherwise have had to pay for.

North Carolina campaign law limits personal contributions to $4,000. The law also says corporations can't give to campaigns at all, and Campbell's planes were owned by his companies, so legal experts say all the flights should have been billed and paid for as campaign expenses.

Easley told board members that he did not deal with the day-to-day financial minutiae of his campaign, but he said Campbell was "not an imbecile," and knew to bill for the flights as called for by the law.

He said he had discussions with Campbell about the flights, and Campbell told him he'd been paid.

"I wasn't out there trying to second guess a person who I trusted, who had told me he had been paid," said Easley. "He told me he was paid for all of those."

Once Easley learned the flights weren't paid for, he said he would have wanted the campaign to settle up.

"I think the important thing is that we get it sorted out. If we owe it, we pay it," he said.

Generous car lease

Easley also tried to explain a generous car lease from a North Carolina car dealer in which the monthly payment was nothing. Easley said he believed at the time that the car was being paid for, but it was apparently overlooked by both his campaign and personal assistant.

The Easley campaign got the 2000 GMC Yukon worth $16,000 to be used by Easley's son Michael for campaign business in 2002 from Bleecker Oldsmobile Buick and GMC.

Robert Bleecker testified on Monday the deal was treated as a lease, but no money was paid up front, and in fact, he didn't get payment for the vehicle until earlier this year.

That was after the media started asking questions about it.

The Easley campaign did not show the vehicle in its financial documents until it filed amended reports this past April.

Both Bleecker and Easley testified that it was a casual arrangement.

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

"He's an old school, kind of hand-shake guy," said Easley. "It didn't bother Mr. Bleecker. He's very loosey goosey about these things."

Easley told the board his intention was for the campaign to pay for the vehicle while it needed it, and then for his family to take over payments when the campaign was over. But Easley was fuzzy on the exact details of the deal and said he did not keep track of bills or invoices.

"I had people paid to do that," said Easley.

"It just never crossed your mind that 'Hey, we aren't paying Mr. Bleecker?'" questioned Chairman Leake.

"I thought the campaign would get and invoice and would pay it," said Easley.

Once the campaign ended, Easley said he thought his personal assistant was sending payments for the vehicle.

Beverly Walker testified later Wednesday that she did not pay any bills from the car dealership.

Easley under federal investigation

Governor Easley took no questions from reporters after the hearing Wednesday. He's under investigation by a grand jury, and federal agents were in the room listening to every minute of his more than five hours of testimony.

ABC11 asked Easley if he thought he would end up in jail, but he had no response.

The North Carolina State Board of Elections subpoenaed long time Easley associate and attorney Ruffin Poole to testify this week, but he filed a lawsuit to quash the subpoena.

Wednesday, a judge agreed to block Poole's testimony based on information in a sealed affidavit. Presumably, the information covers evidence being heard by the grand jury, but the judge refused to make that public.

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