RALEIGH, N.C. — Former Gov. Mike Easley was convicted Tuesday of knowingly filing a false campaign report, becoming the first N.C. governor to admit to a felony in a deal that halted a lengthy federal investigation.
Easley, a Democrat who was governor from 2001 to 2009, appeared before Wake County Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith in a role unfamiliar to a former crusading prosecutor and two-term attorney general.
The crime: Easley admitted that he failed to report on a required campaign disclosure that he took a $1,600 helicopter ride with a supporter in October 2006.
That violated several campaign laws written to shed light on how monied interests interact with politicians - involvement for Easley that had drawn intense focus from state and federal authorities beginning in early 2009.
Easley's conviction was decided after weeks of behind-the-scenes talks between prosecutors and his legal team that culminated over the past few days. Court records indicate that authorities had been weighing at least one other charge.
Easley's voice cracked at times as he answered questions from the judge about whether he understood his plea, known as an Alford plea. It means that he did not admit guilt, but acknowledged there was enough evidence to convict him.
Easley's wife, Mary, and son, Mike Jr., were not in court because, according to one of Easley's lawyers, it was too painful for them to watch.
"I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does," Easley told the judge. "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."
The judge accepted the deal, and with that, Easley avoided jail time and received a fine of $1,000 plus $153 in court costs, an amount that was part of the negotiations.
Easley now risks losing his law license - and he enters the history books.
"Any good he did as governor is overshadowed by this," said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic Party consultant. "[F]rom now on, whenever someone writes about him, or when his obituary is written someday, the first phrase following the comma after his name will be, 'the first governor convicted of a felony.'"
As part of the plea deal, Easley will avoid any other prosecution, and Easley's lawyers, led by Joseph B. Cheshire V of Raleigh, were pleased with the outcome. They all but declared it a victory for Easley, and Cheshire lashed out at the media in its reporting on Easley, specifically mentioning The News & Observer.
The N&O has reported on a wide range of issues tied to Easley in the past two years, articles that spurred the probes and detailed how Easley benefited from free air travel; how he was involved in creating a position for his wife at N.C. State University; how his family members had been driving cars they didn't own; and how he received a $137,000 discount on a lot at a coastal development called Cannonsgate at the height of the real estate boom.
Meanwhile, Easley's campaign was fined $100,000 by the State Board of Elections. NCSU trustees fired Mary Easley, NCSU Chancellor James Oblinger resigned, and Easley senior aide Ruffin Poole was indicted on more than 50 federal corruption charges and pleaded guilty to tax evasion. Poole awaits sentencing.
The helicopter ride
As part of a state elections hearing last year, Easley friend McQueen Campbell testified that he made repairs to Easley's personal residence in 2004 and 2005 and then filed false invoices in order to get paid from campaign money instead of from Easley personally. Campbell had said he did that on Easley's direction, which Easley disputed.
Campbell had also produced a list of campaign flights he provided for Easley that he valued at $87,895 but had not been paid for. Campbell provided another list of personal flights, such as a fishing trip to Florida that he also said he was not paid for. He valued them at $14,000.
Among those flights: the Oct. 2006 helicopter ride that was the subject of Tuesday's plea.
Records show that Campbell picked up Easley near a home he owns in Southport on Oct. 23, 2006, and flew him to a campaign event in Whiteville for Rex Gore, who was running for district attorney. The two then flew on to Raleigh.
The law requires reporting of contributions - money or in-kind services - to ensure that major donors don't exceed specified limits.
Prosecutors said that Campbell will not be charged with any crime, citing his cooperation in the probe.
Until Tuesday, Easley had denied any wrongdoing.
"We know how it'll all be spun by the pundits," Cheshire said. "But the truth was spoken in this courtroom today. And the truth is no money was illegally or improperly used. There was no corruption. And there was some failure to file appropriate financial reports. That's our position."
As part of the deal, federal authorities said in a letter to Easley's lawyer that they will close their part of the probe, which was known only through grand jury subpoenas issued to various state agencies.
The letter was signed by the lead federal prosecutors, including Republican George E.B. Holding. It says "some of the acts and transactions" the federal authorities reviewed did not warrant prosecution because a standard for presenting those items to the grand jury had not been met.
They said that while other acts might meet that standard, they also were taking into account the burden on accused persons in multiple prosecutions, the effective utilization of federal resources and the concept of promoting cooperation between state and federal prosecutors.
The state prosecutor who handled the case, William Kenerly of Salisbury, said that his arm of the investigation covered a wide area and that he saw no evidence to warrant charges outside of the campaign.
But Kenerly, a Republican and the district attorney in Rowan County for about two decades, acknowledged in an interview that his limited experience with political cases was a factor in his decision-making.
"For better or for worse, you start putting this in perspective," he said. "And my perspective is violent criminals. I've never dealt with a political case like this before.... I'm comparing it with rapes, murders, armed robberies and drug dealers, which probably is not the right perspective, but it's the only one I have."