Local Politics

Easley attorney sought opinion on private travel

Posted October 16, 2009 3:34 p.m. EDT
Updated October 16, 2009 7:12 p.m. EDT

— An attorney for former Gov. Mike Easley's election campaign sought and received an advisory opinion on campaign finance rules regarding the private use of aircraft in 2004, according to letters WRAL News obtained this week.

Easley's campaign finances, including numerous flights aboard private planes, are the subject of a federal criminal investigation as well as a hearing later this month before the State Board of Elections.

Investigators are specifically looking at his travel records and whether the value of many of the flights he took were more than the legal limit.

Some flights were never disclosed on campaign finance reports. There are also questions about whether other flights were funneled through the state Democratic Party and whether donors and their businesses violated state law.

The June 21, 2004, letter from State Board of Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett to attorney John Wallace lays out the state's ethics rules. They limit individuals to $4,000 in contributions to a candidate in a single election and prohibit corporations from donating to campaigns.

According to the letter, Wallace had requested the opinion from the elections board in a Feb. 19, 2004, letter on behalf of the North Carolina Democratic Party.

Wallace on Friday acknowledged that he wrote a letter and received the opinion but said, "beyond that, I won't be able to respond."

The value of many of the flights Easley took – after the June 21 letter – 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.

"It's going to be difficult for them to argue, 'We didn't know. We didn't understand,'" said Bob Hall, with the campaign finance watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.

Hall originally filed a complaint with the elections board about Easley's campaign finances.

"You had an instinct that is wrong or that this is something you should find out about. You get the answer and then you should act with that answer," Hall added. "You should know that's the wrong thing to do. They didn't do that."

In July, the state Democratic Party paid the elections board $24,086 to resolve questions about in-kind contributions to the party. David Young, the party's chairman, wrote in a letter that the party had no reason to believe the contributions might have been improper.

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.

Bartlett said last month that investigators had collected enough evidence to warrant a full hearing into the former governor's campaign fundraising and spending.

That hearing is set for Oct. 26 and could last a week. Easley will be the first governor called before an elections board hearing in North Carolina. (WRAL will provide live coverage of the entire process, along with expert analysis, on WRAL.com, on WRAL Mobile and on Time Warner Cable. )

The board could take no action or could issue a reprimand or fine in the case. The findings also could be turned over to the Wake County District Attorney's Office.

As far as the federal investigation, the grand jury has also subpoenaed other records relating to Easley's travel and vehicles provided to the governor and his family while he was in office.

It is also looking at two land deals, his wife's high-paying job at North Carolina State University and decisions by the state Division of Motor Vehicles that might have benefited a political contributor.