Easleys campaign fined $100,000; case now going to Kenerly
From staff, wire reports
RALEIGH ó Former Gov. Mike Easley’s campaign was ordered Friday to pay $100,000 as state elections officials called for a criminal probe in the first official sanctions against Easley stemming from a stream of investigations since he left office in January.
The board’s five members voted unanimously Friday to ask the Wake County district attorney to examine whether crimes occurred, largely related to previously undisclosed airplane flights taken by Easley while a candidate and piloted by a political ally, McQueen Campbell.
But because of his ties to the governor, Wake County DA Colon Willoughby asked ó and the Administrative Office of the Courts agreed ó that the probe be assigned instead to Rowan County DA Bill Kenerly.
Easley appointed Willoughby’s wife to the State Board of Education, and Easley’s son is working this year as a law school intern in Willoughby’s office.
“Having a district attorney handle the case that was not connected to the former governor would instill confidence in whatever decision is made,” Willoughby said in an interview.
Kenerly told the Salisbury Post Friday night that Willoughby had called about a month ago and asked him whether he would be willing to handle a criminal probe, should the Board of Elections call for one.
Willoughby told Kenerly he was too close to the governor. The men also discussed the difficulty in having the state Attorney General’s office handle the probe because Easley had been attorney general prior to becoming governor.
Kenerly said he has a lot of respect for Willoughby and felt that, on a personal level, if the Wake County DA asked for his help he would do it.
“It’s just part of what I do,” Kenerly said of the task before him. “I don’t really know how this will play itself out.”
Kenerly anticipates that the investigative and legal research phases will be based in Salisbury and that he would be needed in Raleigh for any court proceedings.
“That’s my plan right now,” he said.
It’s the first time Kenerly has been assigned as a special prosecutor, and it comes in his last year on the job as Rowan’s DA. Kenerly had announced previously he would not be seeking re-election in 2010.
Kenerly said it’s difficult to say how long the criminal probe of Easley will take but that he hoped it could be handled quickly.
“There has been evidence received of election law campaign finance violations that suggest that Mike Easley and others may have violated North Carolina law,” board Chairman Larry Leake said.
The board wants prosecutors to sort out the truth over repairs performed on Easley’s Raleigh home and overseen by Campbell. Easley and Campbell gave contradictory statements during four days of testimony to the board.
Thomas Hicks, Easley’s personal attorney, said he’s confident the two-term Democratic governor did nothing wrong. But State Election Board members said it was clear The Mike Easley Committee failed to report flights that Campbell said he flew for Easley between 1999 and 2004. Testimony from Easley and campaign leaders suggested no one had made it their job to ensure vendors such as Cambpell, who piloted at least 54 flight legs for Easley during that period, were in campaign reports.
The board told the Easley campaign to give up the value of the flights ó which the board determined to be $60,000 ó and to reimburse the elections board $40,000 for its investigation.
The board’s decisions may diminish Easley’s reputation as a former attorney general who stayed clear of wrongdoing. He had forged a law-and-order persona forged while putting away violent drug dealers as a coastal prosecutor.
“It can’t help but cause problems with your feelings about a guy when he was supposed to be the top cop in the state,” said Andy Dedmon, a former Democratic leader in the Legislature during Easley’s first term. “When you’re somebody who keeps getting thrown rocks at you, after awhile they’re going to bruise you.”
The activities of Campbell and Easley already 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 North Carolina State University.
Easley appointed Campbell to the N.C. State University board but he resigned as board member this year as scrutiny grew over Mary Easley’s post.
She was later fired.
The state Democratic Party also was ordered to forfeit $9,000 in campaign funds for two donations solicited by the Easley campaign from contributors who testified they were told the money would pay Easley expenses. But the board didn’t include the party in its request to examine potential charges.
The forfeited money from the Easley campaign and party go to the public schools.
The board had been examining whether Easley’s campaign could spend as it chose money from the $2 million it had raised for the party from the 2000 and 2004 campaign. Party executive director Andrew Whalen said the board “fully exonerated” the party of election law violations.
The board hearing was the latest this decade involving a high-profile Democrat. Then-Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and House Speaker Jim Black also received board penalties. Both ultimately went to federal prison.
As for Easley, state Republican Party Chairman Tom Fetzer said Friday “no one should take satisfaction in this embarrassing spectacle, the net effect of which has been to reduce and diminish the citizens’ confidence in their government.”
Much of the case hinged on the testimony of Campbell, a Bladen County native and family friend of the governor who 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 testified Campbell’s version of events “never, ever happened.” Campbell testified he filed two bogus invoices with Easley’s campaign. Campbell attorney Hill Allen declined comment Friday.
Easley campaign attorney John Wallace said he doesn’t believe the campaign has enough money right now to pay the $100,000. The campaign had $164,000 as of June 30, but the campaign has legal fees.
The board approved a motion urging the Legislature to pass a law requiring candidates to be personally liable for monetary penalties from the board if the campaign can’t pay.
“If all candidates clearly understand that if their committee messed up and the (board) might be trying to get into their personal pocketbooks, I think it will make them more attentive,” Leake said.