RALEIGH, N.C. – Former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley was convicted Tuesday of a low-level felony and agreed to pay a $1,000 fine for an improperly filed campaign finance report, the lone accusation to emerge after sweeping investigations into his personal and professional life.
A former prosecutor himself, Easley portrayed the matter during a court hearing as little more than a paperwork error, and his attorney later declared the charge showed there was never any corruption. Under a plea agreement, Easley accepted responsibility for campaign forms that failed to disclose a helicopter flight he took in 2006.
"As the candidate, I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does," he told the judge. "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what occurred in this instance."
The accord brings to a close both state and federal investigations into Easley that began shortly after the two-term Demcorat left office in 2009. The probes devoured time and resources, with investigators taking hundreds of interviews and looking into everything from his wife's job at North Carolina State University to a coastal subdivision where the Easleys purchased a lot.
Investigators from the FBI, its state-level counterpart and the IRS — which each took part in the investigations — attended Tuesday's hearing.
Prosecutors overseeing the case, both Republicans, quickly moved to defend its outcome. Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, who took the case after elections officials fined Easley's campaign $100,000 in October 2009, said the investigation was complicated by a 1973 statute that might give immunity to witnesses subpoenaed to testify before the state elections board.
"Critics of this plea agreement should understand that it is a resolution giving consideration to vague statutes and hotly contested evidence," Kenerly said. "As a result of this plea, the former governor is now a convicted felon, a result that I consider to serve the interests of justice in this case."
McQueen Campbell, a real-estate broker who piloted the governor on many flights, has testified that Easley suggested he falsify flight invoices so that he could be reimbursed for repairs to Easley's Raleigh home. Campbell said the fixes reached $11,000. Easley has denied strongly he ever suggested that.
Campbell provided the 2006 helicopter flight, valued at $1,600, at the center of the felony charge.
Meanwhile, the federal investigation earlier this year nabbed ex-Easley aide Ruffin Poole, who pleaded guilty in federal court to tax evasion. Prosecutors put aside more than 50 other counts in an indictment accusing him of helping move along state permits for coastal housing projects while receiving gifts and a sizable investment return on two of those subdivisions. Poole agree to cooperate with federal investigators as part of his plea agreement.
U.S. attorney George Holding and two top deputies wrote that some of the acts they investigated didn't warrant federal prosecution. The government also said it was appropriate in such matters to consider the burdens on the accused with multiple prosecutions the effective use of government resources.
"This ends a sad chapter in North Carolina history," Holding said.
Current Gov. Beverly Perdue has also been dogged by problems with her campaign flight reporting. The elections board fined her $30,000 in August but found no deliberate effort to break the law. State and federal investigators are also looking into her case.
Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith approved Tuesday's agreement in which Easley acknowledged under an Alford plea that the state had enough evidence to convict him but didn't admit he was guilty of a crime. The count to which Easley entered the plea is the lowest-grade felony Class I in North Carolina, and both sides agreed to a penalty of $1,000 fine and court costs. With his otherwise clean record, Easley could not have received active prison time — only a maximum of eight months of low-intensity probation or community punishment.
Easley lawyer Joe Cheshire portrayed the plea as a victory for his client. He said it showed there was no corruption and noted that prosecutors looked into every corner of Easley's life for nearly two years. He blamed the media for damaging Easley's reputation.
"He'll have to resurrect his life," said Cheshire, who added he expects Easley will lose his law license temporarily because of the felony conviction but planned to fight any suspension. He is no longer working at law firm McGuireWoods. His son, Michael Easley Jr., is now listed as an attorney there.
Easley's campaign committee has paid less than $6,000 of the election board's $100,000 fine because it ran out of money and still owed $116,000 in attorneys' fees as of mid-October, according to a campaign report.
Associated Press Writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.