Local Politics

Dems: Prosecutors need to indict Easley or end probe

Posted July 30, 2010 5:27 p.m. EDT
Updated July 30, 2010 7:11 p.m. EDT

— Federal investigators have circled former Gov. Mike Easley for more than a year, questioning whether political favors to friends and contributors led to corruption.

A grand jury has subpoenaed records related to Easley's travel, land deals and relationships with developers. Questions about how his wife landed a high-paying job at North Carolina State University and a subsequent promotion led to the resignations of three top university administrators.

Following a historic hearing last fall, the State Board of Elections ordered Easley's campaign to pay $100,000 for not reporting a number of flights he took aboard donors' private planes. Ruffin Poole, a former top aide, was indicted on 57 corruption charges and pleaded guilty in April to income tax evasion.

Through all of it, Easley hasn't been charged with any crime, prompting some Democrats to ask whether U.S. Attorney George Holding has a case against the former governor.

"Bring the indictments. Let's see what you got," Democratic consultant Brad Crone said Friday. "If you don't have anything, tell the people of North Carolina that we don't have anything, and let the governor move on with his life."

Holding, a Republican appointee, has remained in office solely to complete ongoing investigations against Easley and former presidential candidate John Edwards. U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan said she wanted to hold off having President Barack Obama name a new U.S. attorney to avoid politicizing the two probes.

Crone said, however, that the Easley investigation will play a role in state politics if it isn't wrapped up soon.

"I just think it's unfair, as we get ready to go into a political cycle, to continue to have this cloud out there," he said.

Legal experts said the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down part of an anti-fraud statute used to prosecute some corruption cases might have complicated any case against Easley.

"The playing field has been significantly altered," Raleigh attorney Karl Knudsen said.

For example, the ruling already freed former state lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings from federal prison. He had been convicted of fraud for hiding his financial ties to a lottery company.

To pursue cases under the so-called honest services law, prosecutors must now prove a bribe or kickback was involved.

"It has to be much more than just whether it passes the smell test, whether it looks inappropriate," Knudsen said. "There has to be clear, convincing evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that somebody gave something of value to influence a particular action."

Holding couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but former federal prosecutor Kieran Shanahan said investigators should be given time to get everything right when dealing with a former governor.

"The government has run into a lot of different tentacles and parts of their investigation," Shanahan said. "It's to everybody's benefit to get to the bottom of it. It's just not like TV, where you get an hour."

Knudsen said that, if he were representing Easley, he wouldn't push for a conclusion to the investigation.

"It's unpleasant to have a dark cloud over you, but it's far better than being under indictment," he said.