RALEIGH, N.C. – Former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley agreed to pay a $1,000 fine Tuesday for a single campaign finance violation, ending investigations by state and federal prosecutors who spent more than a year combing through his professional and personal life.
Easley, a former prosecutor who served as governor from 2001 to 2009, entered an Alford plea in Wake County court, which means he acknowledged the state's evidence stemming from a 2006 helicopter trip could result in a conviction without having to admit any guilt. Prosecutors said the state plea also ends a federal probe that started in February 2009, a month after the Democrat left office due to term limits.
Before the judge ruled on the plea agreement, Easley said he took responsibility for the violation and said his campaigns always made efforts to correct errors in their reports.
"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."
Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith approved the agreement, convicting Easley of a relatively minor felony and sentencing him to the $1,000 fine and court costs. The count to which Easley entered the plea is the lowest-grade felony Class I in North Carolina. 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.
The agreement stems from an investigation by Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, who was brought in to examine the case after the State Board of Elections fined Easley's campaign $100,000 in October 2009 for failing to report dozens of campaign flights valued at $60,000.
U.S. Attorney George Holding signed a four-page letter, dated Monday and obtained by The Associated Press, stating he would close a separate two-year investigation as long as the 60-year-old Easley entered a guilty plea in state court. Easley and attorney Joe Cheshire also signed the agreement. Kenerly said that Easley's Alford plea satisfies the requirement in the federal agreement.
Federal prosecutors had cast a wide net in their investigation, calling witnesses for a grand jury to testify about a coastal subdivision where Easley and his wife purchased a lot and the hiring of former first lady Mary Easley at N.C. State University. They nabbed former Easley aide Ruffin Poole, who pleaded guilty in April to tax evasion in exchange for dropping dozens of other counts and working with investigators. Poole hasn't been sentenced.
While not discussing specifics, 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 office will decline to bring any charges against Mr. Easley based on the currently known facts," the prosecutors wrote, adding the agreement's purpose was "to seek finality and repose for Mr. Easley and this office."
Easley lawyer Joe Cheshire portrayed the plea as a victory for his client, saying it showed there was no corruption and nothing 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 ressurect 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.
Associated Press Writer Gary D. Robertson contributed to this report.