Easley in spotlight again with elections hearing
Former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley's campaign finances go under the microscope Monday when state election officials begin to scrutinize his election efforts and money from the state Democratic Party.
The investigative hearing, which could last up to a week, could provide new details about more than 25 questioned plane flights and other activities surrounding the two-term governor while Easley was in office.
The five-member board – three Democrats and two Republicans – could issue fines or reprimands, refer the case to a district attorney for criminal charges, or exonerate the party and The Mike Easley Committee.
McRae, a Bojangles' franchisee, hog baron Wendell Murphy and developers Gary Allen and Nick Garrett are among the political contributors subpoenaed in the case.
“This investigation really is going to get at the state's power brokers,” said Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic political consultant whose campaign finance complaints sparked probes that led to the downfall of former House Speaker Jim Black and former Rep. Thomas Wright.
It's unclear who on the list will actually be called as witnesses, and some people who are called might exercise their constitutional right not to testify.
Easley is the latest high-profile Democrat before the board this decade, following Black and state Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, both of whom ultimately went to prison. Easley is certainly the best known, even after leaving office in January.
Easley hasn't been formally accused of wrongdoing, but political observers expect Democrats to take some hits because of the hearings on the conduct of the former prosecutor-turned-governor.
"It's never happened before. It's not exactly a pleasant spectacle," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic consultant whose clients included Gov. Jim Hunt and John Edwards.
Easley and his election victories were once one of the few bright spots for the Democratic Party in the South. He was someone who "had a reputation of being a tough, courageous, crime-busting DA and attorney general before he was governor," Pearce added. "And this is like Jekyll and Hyde."
Easley joined a high-powered law firm in Raleigh after 16 years in office – eight each as governor and attorney general.
He essentially has been close-mouthed since May as these and other allegations surfaced. A spokesman, political consultant Ace Smith, declined comment Friday out of what he called "respect for this process." Smith said in July he didn't believe a board hearing was warranted. Spokesmen for the committee and the Democratic Party have said they were cooperating with the board.
"We are confident that what we have done was permissible under the rules and laws of the State Board of Elections related to campaign finance," Andrew Whalen, the party's executive director.
By holding the hearing, board Chairman Larry Leake – one of two Democratic board members previously appointed by Easley – apparently believes it's important enough to examine publicly the ex-governor's activities while he was in office. It's a reflection of the board's increased role as a watchdog and its interest in examining non-cash contributions to campaigns.
"That's the most important thing to come out of the state Board of Elections next week is for us to realize that our campaign finance system is still broken. There are still too many loopholes and we have a lot of work to do," Sinsheimer said.
The hearing stems from allegations that Easley's campaign reported improperly or not at all private airplane flights offered to him by supporters while governor and a car loaner being used by his son.
The Democratic Party got pulled in when it announced in July it was forfeiting more than $24,000 in "in-kind" donations, most of which originated from donors who also have acknowledged flying Easley around while governor.
Leake said in July there were concerns about whether the donations actually were used by the party – leading to questions of whether the flights were earmarked to the party so Easley donors could avoid the $4,000 donation limit per election.
The board plays the role of a public investigative grand jury, issuing subpoenas and taking testimony and is even permitted to offer legal immunity. Witnesses can decline to give testimony on the right against self-incrimination.
The campaign irregularities are scattered around a broader probe by federal prosecutors interested in how first lady Mary Easley landed a job at N.C. State University while her husband was governor and the lot the Easleys bought in the Cannonsgate coastal development.
Leake acknowledged hosting a fundraiser for Easley during his 2000 gubernatorial campaign and considers him a friend but believes he and other board members can act objectively, pointing to their handling of previous cases like Black and Phipps.
Leaders in North Carolina's political circles are anxiously watching the results of the board probe, the latest with the potential to damage further the reputation of politicians in the eyes of the public.
"For anybody that calls North Carolina home, it's not a happy occasion," Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham. "It does paint us all with a brush that we prefer not be painted with. It's all the more reason for us to get to the bottom of it and find out what happened and deal with it."