Easley pleads to campaign finance violation

Former Governor Mike Easley enters a guilty plea in a Raleigh courtroom Thursday
November 24, 2010 2:51:41 PM PST
Former Governor Mike Easley walked into a North Carolina courtroom Tuesday and entered an Alford plea to a felony campaign finance violation.

An Alford plea means he does not admit guilt, but acknowledges the evidence against him could lead to a guilty verdict.

"As the candidate, I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me," Easley told the court.

Click here to watch Easley's statement

Prosecutor William D. Kenerly said the date of the offense was April 17, 2009. It's a Class I felony for failure to report campaign contributions or expenditures.

Click here to read the court documents related to the plea agreement (.pdf)

Easley agreed to pay a $1,000 fine plus court costs. Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith accepted the deal which will keep Easley out of jail, but he will likely lose his license to practice law.

The plea wraps up months of investigation of Easley's financial dealings, and will be enough for federal investigators to drop a separate grand jury investigation.

Representatives from the FBI, IRS and SBI were in the courtroom.

In October 2009, the State Board of Elections referred its probe of the Easley election campaigns to Kenerly to see if Easley or others broke campaign finance laws and if criminal charges were warranted.

The board fined Easley's campaign committee $100,000 when it determined there was enough evidence to show the committee failed to report dozens of flights that ex-political ally McQueen Campbell said he flew for Easley between 1999 and 2004.

Kenerly said in court Tuesday that the Easley plea deal agreed to Tuesday refers to a helicopter flight piloted by Campbell on October 23, 2006.

Campbell flew Easley - then a sitting governor - to Southport for a campaign fundraiser. North Carolina election law requires campaigns to report all cash or so-called in-kind contributions. A flight is considered an in-kind contribution and Kenerly said McQueen put a dollar value on the October flight of $1,600.

Kenerly said the campaign did not report that flight in a report filed in January 2007, and it was not included in an amended disclosure report filed on April 17, 2009.

Kenerly also told the judge after months of digging he found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing on Easley's part outside of campaign issues. He said he did not find any evidence that campaign money was improperly used. He said it was just not properly reported.

Easley's attorney Joe Cheshire seized on that point while speaking with reporters after the hearing. He referenced the dozens of media articles written about the Easley investigation over the past two years - articles that referred to a car from a local dealership used by the Easley campaign, allegations that campaign money was used for repairs to the Easley home, a sweetheart deal on a lot at a coastal development, and a job given to Easley's wife Mary at NC State University.

Cheshire said prosecutors found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

"These things succeeded in trashing Governor Easley, in trashing his wife, and in trashing his family," said Cheshire. "And they did so before any investigating agency determined the truth."

Cheshire pointed out the both the state special prosecutor and the federal prosecutor involved are lifelong Republicans - which he said lended even more credibility to the finding of no wrongdoing outside the campaign finance disclosure violation.

"If there was ever any evidence of something ending not with a bang, but with a whimper, this is it," he said.

In his statement to the court, Kenerly addressed potential critics of the plea deal.

"Critics of this plea agreement should understand that it is a resolution giving consideration to vague statutes and hotly contested evidence. As a result of this plea the former Governor is now a convicted felon, a result that I consider to serve the interests of justice in this case," he said.

United States Attorney George Holding issued a statement after the hearing confirming that he will not file federal charges against Easley.

"It is no cause for celebration that a former Governor of North Carolina has been convicted of a felony related to his service as Governor," wrote Holding. "But it does signify the North Carolina is taking seriously the enforcement of its campaign finance laws. This ends a sad chapter in North Carolina history."

Ex-Easley aide Ruffin Poole pleaded guilty this past April in federal court to tax evasion. Prosecutors put aside more than 50 other counts in an indictment accusing him of helping move along state permits for coastal housing projects while receiving gifts and a sizable investment return on two of those subdivisions.

Poole agreed to cooperate with federal investigators as part of his plea agreement. He has not been sentenced.

Governor Beverly Perdue - who has acknowledged that her election campaign's are also under federal scrutiny - issued a statement Tuesday after Easley entered his plea.

"Today marks the ending of a difficult period for the people of North Carolina. As we enter the holiday season we must refocus on what's important to move this state forward in the New Year - creating jobs for our people and educating our children. I look forward to putting this issue behind us," she said.

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