Former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley was convicted on Tuesday of knowingly filing a false campaign report, becoming the state's first governor to admit to a felony. The plea by Easley, a Democrat who was governor from 2001 to 2009, halts state and federal investigations that lasted nearly two years.
The 60-year-old former prosecutor and two-term attorney general admitted that he failed to indicate on a required campaign disclosure that he took a $1,600 helicopter ride with a supporter -- McQueen Campbell, the former chairman of the board of trustees at N.C. State University -- in October 2006, said The News & Observer
. Easley will not serve time but will pay a fine of $1,000, plus $153 in court costs. He also risks losing his law license. Easley entered an Alford plea, which means that while he did not admit guilt, he acknowledged there was sufficient evidence to convict him of a crime.
"I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does," Easley told Wake County Superior Court Judge W. Osmond Smith. "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."
Easley's attorneys took aim at media reports on Easley's troubles over the past two years.
The News & Observer
, the Carolina Journal and the Charlotte Observer have reported on several issues tied to Easley in articles that looked into his role in creating a position for his wife at N.C. State (she was later fired by university trustees); "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," said The N&O.
In a letter to Easley's lawyers, federal authorities said they would close their probe. The letter, signed by the lead federal prosecutors, including Republican George E.B. Holding, said that "some of the acts and transactions" they reviewed do not warrant prosecution because a standard for presenting those items to the grand jury has not been met.
In a statement issued Tuesday, William Kenerly, the state prosecutor who handled the case, acknowledged that his decision to accept Easley's plea would be criticized. But he said that "hotly contested" facts and "vague statutes" were why he did so. Kenerly, a Republican, said he believes the plea deal serves "the interests of justice in this case."
"Any good he did as governor is overshadowed by this," Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic Party consultant, told the N&O. "[F]rom now on, whenever someone writes about him, or when his obituary is written some day, the first phrase following the comma after his name will be 'the first governor convicted of a felony.' "