RALEIGH, N.C. — Former Gov. Mike Easley pleaded guilty Tuesday to a single campaign finance violation as part of a deal to end long-running state and federal investigations into his dealings with friends and contributors while in office.
Easley entered an Alford plea to certifying a false campaign finance report, which is a felony offense. He was fined $1,000 and ordered to provide a DNA sample as a convicted felon, but he avoided any prison time.
In an Alford plea, a defendant pleads guilty, while maintaining his innocence, and admits it is in his best interest to take the plea deal because there is sufficient evidence to find him guilty.
Easley apologized for the erroneous financial reports, and he took responsibility for them.
"Our campaigns, over the years, have made errors – financial errors, contributions, expenditures. We've tried to correct them when we could," he said. "As the candidate, I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me."
Defense attorney Joseph Cheshire noted after the hearing that extensive investigations into Easley's political and personal life turned up only one technical violation of campaign finance reporting regulations.
"There is a value in proper reporting. We acknowledge that. There is a criminal violation if you don't properly report. We acknowledge that. We've accepted that," he said. "Was there corruption? No."
Cheshire blasted the media and political pundits – he called them "self-important shill no-nothings" – for trying to paint Easley and former first lady Mary Easley as crooks.
"These things succeeded in trashing Gov. Easley, in trashing his wife, in trashing his family and in trashing – not helping, not helping – the state's political process and the citizens' respect for government," he said.
State elections board prompted probe
Tuesday's court hearing comes more than a year after the State Board of Elections ordered Easley's campaign to pay $100,000 for dozens of flights the former governor took aboard donors' private planes during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.
The board turned its findings over to Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly to determine whether to pursue criminal charges.
"It's obviously a new day in the political process in that we have campaign reporting requirements and those requirements must be complied with," elections board chairman Larry Leake said.
Kenerly said Tuesday that Easley never included an Oct. 23, 2006, helicopter flight provided by McQueen Campbell, a close friend and contributor, in the quarterly campaign finance report filed in January 2007 or in an amended report filed in April 2009.
The flight to Southport, which was valued at $1,600, was so Easley could attend a fundraiser for a local district attorney candidate, Kenerly said.
"There's probably some argument that could be made that this was not a flight that needed to be reported because it was not Mr. Easley's campaign," Kenerly told the judge. "However, there's an equal argument that, with the (estimated) $87,000 in campaign flights that Mr. Campbell provided, this was one of them that had to do with (Easley's) political campaign and his general fundraising efforts."
Kenerly said that his review of Easley's campaign finance records and information gathered by State Bureau of Investigation agents turned up no other illegal activities.
"I did not find any evidence to go forward on any non-campaign issue," he said. "Campaign money was not used inappropriately; it was reported incorrectly ... It was not money anywhere, that I have found, that was used illegally."
The violation was a misdemeanor in 2007, but ethics reform legislation passed in the last couple of years by state lawmakers made it a low-level felony, Kenerly said.
"Part of the reason for entering the plea, regardless of punishment, regardless of any Alford pleas, is that it's a significant and sad end to this story," he said after the court hearing.
Federal investigation ends
A federal grand jury also has been investigating since early 2009 Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office. In addition to the campaign flights, it's believed the grand jury, which operates in secret, has looked at coastal real estate deals and a high-paying job former first lady Mary Easley had at North Carolina State University.
As part of the plea agreement, federal authorities dropped their investigation.
"There's just nothing there. If there was something there, somebody would have done something about it," Cheshire said. "It's easy for the federal government to charge someone, and it's easier for them to convict someone."
U.S. Attorney George Holding said in a statement that his prosecutors reviewed the evidence they had compiled and then looked at whether they could obtain a conviction and whether they should subject Easley to dual prosecutions before deciding not to pursue the case further.
"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, but it does signify that North Carolina is taking seriously the enforcement of its campaign finance laws. This ends a sad chapter in North Carolina history," Holding said.
Some legal experts have said that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling gutted the federal case, so authorities let the state investigation take precedence.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in June that prosecutors could seek convictions under the law for "honest services fraud" only if they had evidence that defendants accepted bribes or kickbacks. Previously, prosecutors would combine a series of unethical actions into a single case to show that taxpayers or investors were deprived of honest services.
The ruling led to the release of former North Carolina lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings in June. Geddings had been convicted on federal fraud charges in 2006 for not disclosing his links to a lottery vendor.
Ruffin Poole, who once was Easley's top aide, has been the only person charged in the federal probe. He pleaded guilty in May to tax evasion for not reporting income from coastal properties he invested in along with Easley supporters. He is awaiting sentencing in the case.
Impact of conviction
In addition to becoming part of the state's DNA database, Easley will lose some of his civil rights as a convicted felon.
He will not be able to own a firearm, and he will have to appeal to the North Carolina State Bar to retain his license to practice law. He will still be able to vote because he wasn't sentenced to prison or placed on probation.
The plea won't impact Easley's state pension because the improper campaign report was filed before lawmakers passed legislation aimed at cutting off pensions to convicted politicians.
Still, the episode tarnishes his legacy.
Easley was first elected district attorney in Brunswick County in 1982. Ten years later, he was North Carolina Attorney General, and he followed eight years in that office with eight years as governor.
During his time leading the state, he confronted budget crises, responded to natural disasters from hurricanes to drought and championed the early childhood education initiative More at Four.
Now, he is the first North Carolina governor to be convicted in court of a crime related to his actions in office. He also joins a line of Democratic state officials who have been found guilty of wrongdoing in recent years, including former House Speaker Jim Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former Rep. Thomas Wright.