Local Politics

Rowan DA to handle Easley probe

Posted October 30, 2009 4:18 p.m. EDT
Updated October 30, 2009 7:10 p.m. EDT

— Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby has asked his counterpart in Rowan County to oversee the criminal investigation into the campaign finances of former Gov. Mike Easley.

The State Board of Elections on Friday turned its investigation into alleged campaign finance violations by Easley over to prosecutors, saying "evidence suggests" crimes might have been committed by him and others.

The elections board also cited Easley's campaign for violations of campaign finance laws that were uncovered during a week-long hearing in the case.

Willoughby has a long professional relationship with Easley, his wife used to work for Easley and Easley's son served an internship in the Willoughby's office.

To avoid any conflict of interest, he asked Bill Kenerly, the Republican district attorney in Salisbury, to take charge of the case and asked the state Administrative Office of Courts to assign him temporarily to Raleigh to carry out the investigation.

"I felt, if I stayed in the case, that many people would make the issue my decision or the controversy would be about me – whether or not I should make the decision," Willoughby said. "I thought it would be more appropriate that the decision be made by someone whose judgment couldn't be questioned for any kind of personal or political reasons."

Easley and his attorney, Tommy Hicks, sought the criminal probe, saying it is the only way the former governor can remove the cloud of suspicion raised by witnesses in the elections board hearing.

Raleigh businessman McQueen Campbell said Monday that he ferried Easley around the state in his private planes for the 2000 and 2004 campaigns but was never reimbursed for them. He also said Easley suggested that he bill the campaign for repairs  to Easley's Raleigh home that Campbell paid for and list the expense as flight costs.

Easley flatly denied Campbell's allegation, saying the conversation Campbell contended the two had about falsifying campaign invoices "never, ever happened."

The former governor also said he thought his campaign had paid for his trips aboard donors' planes and for a used GMC Yukon that Fayetteville car dealer Bobby Bleecker gave Easley six years ago with the understanding no money would be paid until he was finished using the vehicle.

The elections board ordered Easley's campaign to forfeit $60,000 for plane trips the former governor took on private planes that were never noted on campaign finance reports, and the board assessed a $40,000 fine against the campaign committee to pay for the cost of the state investigation into the matter.