There’s At Least One More Fine To Pay
Statement from Bob Hall, Executive Director, Democracy North Carolina
November 24, 2010
Former Democratic Gov. Mike Easley walked away from court on Tuesday 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 $153 bill for court costs.
The puny punishment is neither a deterrent for the future nor an honest portrayal of the wrongdoing that happened.
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 will agree.
For all its effort, the US Attorney’s office apparently did not obtain the kind of eyewitness testimony and documentary evidence of criminal corruption needed to pursue a federal case. And the state’s special prosecutor said he 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. However, news accounts and our complaint in 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, and indeed, no one could show that he reached the level of corrupt deal-making involved in the prosecution of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and former Speaker Jim Black. Such distinctions are important – all corruption is not the same. But the composite picture of lucrative special favors, deceit, and illegal campaign practices involved in the Mike Easley case serves as another reminder of how public officials and 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 with the US Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence election outcomes. It’s folly to think that the money-drenched campaign system won’t keep turning a dangerous share of charming public servants into greedy hustlers.
The only bright spot in the plea agreement hearing 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 should now accept responsibility for the $100,000 fine levied against the Easley campaign committee by the State Board of Elections; the committee paid only $6,000 and has nothing left after paying attorney fees. Now it’s Mike Easley’s responsibility: he should pay the other $94,000. And the General Assembly should enact a law to clarify that the buck really does stop with the candidate.