Elections board to look into Easley's campaign finances
Posted September 30, 2009 12:27 p.m. EDT
Updated September 30, 2009 6:55 p.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — The State Board of Elections will conduct a public hearing into the campaign finances of former Gov. Mike Easley, officials said Wednesday.
The move comes amid a federal investigation into Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.
The elections board closed its file on Easley to the public on May 15, indicating that officials had formally begun a criminal investigation of his campaign finances. Gary Bartlett, executive director of the elections board, said investigators had collected enough evidence to warrant a full hearing into the former governor's campaign fundraising and spending.
The public hearing is set for Oct. 26, and Bartlett said it could last a week.
"Not only does the public have the right to know who's contributing, but (also) how you spend your money," he said.
Easley will be the first governor called before an elections board hearing in North Carolina. Others who have faced similar inquiries include former House Speaker Jim Black and former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps.
The board could take no action or it could issue a reprimand or fine in the case. The findings also could be turned over to the Wake County District Attorney's Office if board members think criminal charges might be warranted.
"It's quite serious, and Gov. Easley is not going to sleep well tonight," said Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic political consultant who helped spark the elections board inquiry into Black's campaign finances.
"If people are allowed to give the chief executive officer of the state goodies, whether it's free flights or free meals or free cars, then the entire process gets corrupted," Sinsheimer said.
Easley couldn't be reached Wednesday for comment.
John Wallace, an attorney for the Mike Easley Committee, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying that the committee has provided more than 17 years of campaign finance records to the elections board in recent months and has answered all of the questions investigators have asked.
"The committee has cooperated fully with the board and will continue to cooperate with the board in connection with the (pending) hearing," Wallace said.
The state Highway Patrol, which provides a security detail for the governor, turned over Easley's travel records to both the elections board and a federal grand jury in May. The News & Observer newspaper has reported that Easley took at least two dozen flights on private aircraft while in office that weren't disclosed on campaign finance reports.
North Carolina's ethics laws require the disclosure of gifts over $200. State elections laws also prevent corporations from donating to campaigns and limit individuals to $4,000 in contributions to a candidate in a single election.
The value of many of the flights Easley took was more than $4,000 or was close enough to top the legal limit when combined with other contributions, according to information from the state Democratic Party.
The state party paid the elections board $24,086 in July to resolve questions about in-kind contributions to the party in 2004, including six flights for Easley aboard private planes. It's illegal to contribute to a political party with the intent to benefit a particular candidate.
The Democratic Party issued a statement Wednesday saying it welcomes an open hearing to determine the facts. Gov. Beverly Perdue also issued a statement, saying a public hearing is important to maintain credibility in state government.
“As I’ve said from Day One of this administration, I’m committed to transparency and accountability in our government. I believe it is critical for the people of North Carolina that we have a thorough and public review of these issues,” Perdue said.
The federal grand jury also has inquired about vehicles car dealers provided to Easley and his family while he was in office, contacting Fayetteville car dealer Bobby Bleecker, among others. One of Bleecker's dealerships provided a GMC Yukon for Michael Easley, the former governor's son.
Mike Easley paid Bleecker Olds/Buick/GMC in Red Springs $6,884 for the SUV on April 2, shortly after reports about the vehicle appeared in the media.
About $6,710 in campaign money was used to pay for the Yukon. said in April that the vehicle was used during the 2004 primary and general election campaigns.
Easley's campaign also paid the elections board $2,911 to cover interest for the belated reporting of the use of the SUV, and Wallace amended some quarterly campaign reports from 2003 to 2005 to reflect the use of the vehicle as an in-kind contribution.
The grand jury also is looking at two land deals involving the former governor, a high-paying job that his wife, Mary Easley, landed at North Carolina State University, and decisions by the state Division of Motor Vehicles that might have benefited a political contributor.