Local Politics

Sources: Plea deal expected in Easley campaign investigation

Posted November 22, 2010 4:42 p.m. EST
Updated November 23, 2010 11:23 a.m. EST

— Former Gov. Mike Easley is expected to plead guilty Tuesday in a case involving his campaign finances, sources told WRAL News.

A court hearing is set for noon Tuesday in Raleigh.

The plea deal could involve a charge related to obstruction of justice, sources said. Obstruction of justice is a felony offense.

The hearing comes more than a year after the State Board of Elections ordered Easley's campaign to pay $100,000 for dozens of flights the former governor took aboard donors' private planes during the 2000 and 2004 campaigns.

The board also turned its findings over to prosecutors to determine whether to pursue criminal charges.

Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, who was named to examine the case, said recently that there was a hitch in the investigation, but he declined to elaborate.

Karl Knudsen, a Raleigh defense attorney not associated with the case, said Monday that a plea might be Easley’s best move.

“There is a lot to be gained by both sides reaching an agreement that meets everybody’s needs,” he said.

In a plea deal, prosecutors are spared a possible loss at trial, and mounting a defense in court could cost Easley millions of dollars.

“The legal expenses of something like that could bankrupt him,” Knudsen said.

A federal grand jury also has been investigating since early 2009 Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office. In addition to the campaign flights, it's believed the grand jury, which operates in secret, has looked at coastal real estate deals and a high-paying job former first lady Mary Easley had at North Carolina State University.

Sources said that the plea deal could end the federal investigation as well.

Potential prison time would be at the discretion of the Superior Court judge handling the case, sources said.

Knudsen said that because the charge is a relatively low-level felony and because Easley has no prior record, “the possibility of him serving any serious prison time is very low.”

He could also face possible punishments, such as fines, restitution, probation or community service and lose his law license, Knudsen said.

A fall from such a high place could be one of the harsher punishments, he added.

“To enter a guilty plea, or a no contest plea, and become a convicted felon – that is a bitter pill to swallow,” Knudsen said.

Ruffin Poole, who once was Easley's top aide, has been the only person charged in the federal probe. He pleaded guilty in May to tax evasion for not reporting income from coastal properties he invested in along with Easley supporters. He is awaiting sentencing in the case.