Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley walked away from court today with the long federal and state investigation finally ended. The US Attorney and a special state prosecutor, both Republicans, agreed to let Easley plead guilty to one felony charge of falsely certifying a campaign disclosure report that omitted details about one airplane flight, a class I felony that, considering his lack of previous convictions, brought him a $1,000 fine and a bill for court costs. The plea agreement resulted from intense legal wrangling about an obscure state law that complicated prosecution,  the actual weakness of the federal criminal investigation, and the consensus among defense and prosecuting attorneys that a felony conviction alone, without a hefty fine or jail time, sends a message that stiff punishment is being handed down. (It’s doubtful the public at large will agree.) For all their effort, the FBI and US Attorney’s office did not obtain the kind of eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence of criminal corruption they needed to hold up in federal court. And the state’s special prosecutor also found no fraudulent use of campaign funds that went beyond the dozens of airplane flights and other campaign transactions that the Mike Easley Committee did not accurately report on its required disclosure reports. Our letter in July 2009 pointed out specific examples of illegal campaign contributions which the Easley Committee later admitted happened, and the State Board of Elections fined the Committee $100,000 for a host of unreported flights, some provided by corporations as illegal contributions. Easley’s attorney sought to spin the final verdict as a vindication of his client against charges of corruption, but the whole case serves as another reminder of how candidates eager for money will bend rules, even cross the line, to obtain extra funds. The underlying pressure driving political corruption is only increasing, especially in this post-Citizen United era. Unfortunately, the puny punishment today is neither a deterrent for the future nor an honest portrayal of the wrongdoing that happened. The bright spot was Easley telling the judge, “I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me.” That said, he now should pay the $100,000 fine levied against his campaign committee by the State Board of Elections; the committee paid only $6,000 and has nothing left after paying attorney fees – so, yes, this is Mike Easley’s responsibility: let him pay the other $94,000.

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