Wake DA steps back from Easley case

RALEIGH The board has been investigating flights Easley 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.

It said there was evidence of possible criminal activity.

"Mike Easley and others may have violated campaign law," explained Chairman Larry Leake.

The board said it found evidence that flights provided by campaign supporter McQueen Campbell were not properly reported and ordered the campaign to pay fines totaling $100,000.

That included $60,000 for the flights and $40,000 to reimburse the board for the cost of its investigation.

Easley attorney Thomas Hicks said after the hearing his client got what he wanted. In an unusual closing argument Thursday, Hicks said prosecutors would have more resources to examine whether criminal charges are necessary.

"When I go to a tribunal and ask for it and they give me what I want, that makes me happy," Hicks told reporters Friday. However, he repeated his claim that Easley has done nothing illegal.

The board also found that the Easley campaign solicited $9,000 in contributions to the North Carolina Democratic Party from donors who believed the money would pass through the party directly to the Easley campaign.

Parties can receive unlimited contributions, while individual candidates are limited to $4,000 per donor. There is no limit on how much the parties then turn around and give to specific campaigns. However, it is against campaign law for parties to solicit funds for specific candidates.

Chairman Larry Leake said there was evidence the campaign did that, and moved to fine the North Carolina Democratic Party $9,000. The board agreed.

In a statement put out to supporters Friday, Andrew Whalen, Executive Director of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the board had "fully exonerated" the party of any violations of campaign law.

"It was undisputed that the Party did not participate in the solicitations and had no knowledge of the manner in which the solicitations were made," he wrote.

Republicans also quickly issued statements after the board announced its decision.

"The $100,000 levied against the Mike Easley Committee and referral of evidence to the Wake County District Attorney were necessary and appropriate steps to take," said Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham).

Governor Bev Perdue said Friday the board approached the issue without bias.

"Their decision to refer the matter to the Wake County district attorney will hopefully move us one step closer to resolving what has been a major distraction for the state of North Carolina," Perdue said.

The North Carolina GOP added there are no winners in the scandal.

"The state Board of Elections has done its job and should be commended in its handling of a sad episode in our state's history," said Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer in a statement. "What both political parties should be concerned with is restoring confidence in our government and the political system."

Also Friday, the North Carolina Court Appeals issued an order saying they stay the ruling by a judge preventing former Mike Easley attorney Ruffin Poole from testifying before the Board of Elections.

That means that Poole must testify unless he appeals the Court of Appeals decision to the State Supreme Court or asks for a full hearing before the Court of Appeals.

Willoughby recuses himself

Wake County DA Colon Willoughby recused himself from the case Friday and asked a prosecutor in another district to step in. Willoughby and Easley's relationship goes back years, which he said could create the appearance of a conflict of interest.

"It is appropriate that I request another district attorney," said Willoughby.

Willoughby asked Republican William Kenerly of Rowan County to take on the job.

Much of the case against Easley hinged on the testimony of one-time political ally McQueen Campbell, the former chairman of the trustees board at North Carolina State University.

Campbell, who piloted Easley on campaign flights going back to 1999, testified Easley suggested that he file invoices for flights to get reimbursed for repairs to Easley's Raleigh home that Campbell said reached $11,000.

Easley, who was attorney general for eight years before being elected governor in 2000, testified that he never told Campbell to falsify invoices, nor did he imply Campbell should. Campbell testified he filed two bogus invoices with Easley's campaign.

Campbell testified he hadn't been reimbursed for scores of campaign-related flights, which he valued at nearly $88,000 that the campaign never reported. But Easley said Campbell told him he had been reimbursed.

The activities of Campbell and Easley also have gotten the attention of federal prosecutors, and a grand jury has been calling witnesses to testify about a coastal subdivision where Easley and his wife purchased a lot and the hiring of former first lady Mary Easley at N.C. State University.

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