Democrats in NC struggle to shake legal scrutiny

RALEIGH Gov. Mike Easley this week became the latest leading Democrat convicted of a crime, agreeing this week to a plea deal and fine over improper campaign paperwork. Among others punished over the past several years include Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, state Rep. Thomas Wright and ex-House Speaker Jim Black.

Even more are still facing questions. Prosecutors have an investigation into current Gov. Beverly Perdue's campaign finances. An investigation into former presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. John Edwards has also been showing signs of activity. And in two weeks, the North Carolina elections board will examine whether former state Sen. Fred Hobbs made political contributions under the names of others.

"I'm hoping that Democrats will realize that we're in a new era. And, to compete effectively with Republicans, we can't have this kind of political baggage," said Joe Sinsheimer, a Democrat who has been critical of Perdue, Easley and other party leaders. He believes the legal questions are contributing to GOP gains in state government.

In this month's election, Republicans surged to gain control of both the state House and state Senate for the first time in more than a century. While the party made gains throughout the country, they focused particularly in North Carolina on leveraging the investigations into a political advantage.

Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic strategist in North Carolina, argued the legal scrutiny damages the reputation of all politicians, not just one party. He expects the Republicans will start facing increased attention and questioning now that they are in charge.

Pearce said politicians need to be aware that more money is entering politics and that there is increased sensitivity to the issue in the law and the media.

"They've got to realize they're in a new world," Pearce said.

Easley's plea this week, in which he acknowledged under the Alford doctrine that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him, focused on an unreported flight he took in 2006. He had been previously fined $100,000 by the State Board of Elections for how he handled flight disclosures.

Perdue, who succeeded Easley as governor early last year, has also been fined by the elections board for problems with reporting flights.

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