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John Hood column: Reform can’t fix Easley’s arrogance

RALEIGH ó The spectacle of a former governor testifying under oath before the state board of elections about corruption allegations didn’t just make political history in North Carolina. It also served to focus the state’s attention on a single moment in time ó Mike Easley’s desperate attempt, broadcast live online and over the air, to save his hide.
One great thing about modern technology is that it eliminates gatekeepers. Provided with the opportunity to witness events live, citizens can draw their own conclusions. They don’t have to rely on others to convert raw reality into bite-sized nuggets of news.
Speaking just as one member of the audience, however, I heard a man start out confidently, employ his usual blarney to evade the early questions, and then begin to fall apart. Easley’s charm became smarmy. His bravado became arrogant. His faulty recollections became evasive.
I have no way to predict with certainty what happens next. It seems likely that some of the allegations may lead to elections board fines against the Easley campaign, the Democratic Party, or both. It may lead to a referral to law enforcement. Various of the Easley scandals are already under investigation by state and federal authorities. The story is far from over, but anyone who tells you he knows how it will end is either fooling you or himself.
Still, I can offer this prediction: many North Carolina politicians and activists are going to try to change the subject. They are going to argue that whatever Mike Easley and his allies did wrong proves the need to “banish big money from North Carolina politics” through tighter campaign-finance limits and, ultimately, replacing voluntary private funding of campaigns with coercive taxpayer funding of campaigns.
Something similar happened when former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps was convicted and sent to the slammer. It happened again when Frank Ballance, a former congressman and state senate majority whip, was convicted and sent to the slammer. It happened big time when former House Speaker Jim Black and his cronies were convicted and sentenced either to fines or to prison time.
Once again, this is not about campaign-finance reform. People who assert that are actually making future corruption more likely, not less likely ń hardly their intention, but so what?
Mike Easley was a district attorney. He was attorney general of North Carolina for eight years. He was governor for eight years. He knew the laws. He knew the ethical standards North Carolina sets for its government officials. He didn’t get into trouble because the rules were unclear, or because his opponents were better funded, or because he suffered some devastating personal loss that tempted him to accept unreported gifts, consume state resources for personal use, or get his wife a cushy job at N.C. State University.
Easley did what he did because he felt entitled. And he figured he could get away with it. If it turns out that he was personally involved in schemes to evade the campaign finance laws, he no doubt figured that North Carolina would be better off if he was in charge of state government and so whatever needed to be done was justified.
If limits on campaign donations are further tightened, those who feel personally entitled and adhere to ends-justify-the-means ethics will simply find new ways to evade the rules. If direct private support to candidates is abolished, people and institutions with a strong interest in government policy and lots of cash will just find new ways to help elect politicians with whom they agree. To believe one could ever eliminate such influence is to engage in fantasy. What’s worse, it is simply to argue that a new set of powerful interests ń such as media companies and ideologically motivated foundations capable of expending big dollars outside the rules ń ought to wield more power. So it’s both fanciful and dangerous.
If you blame the system rather than the perpetrator, you’re making excuses for his behavior. Like North Carolina’s growing list of disgraced politicians, Mike Easley doesn’t deserve it.
– – –
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of CarolinaJournal. com.

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