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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mike Easley Joins The "North Carolina Felons Club" Like Jim Black

Mike Easley Enters Plea Deal To Felony Campaign Finance Charge

Mike Easley, North Carolina's governor from 2001 to 2009, became a convicted felon today when he entered an Alford Plea to violating state campaign finance laws.

He will not serve time but will pay a $1,000 fine.

The plea ends nearly two years of state and federal probes that had surrounded Easley, a Democrat who served two terms as governor and two terms as attorney general.

Easley, 60, entered an Alford plea of guilty to violating campaign finance laws, a felony. An Alford plea means that Easley is not admitting guilt, but he acknowledges there was sufficient evidence to convict him of a crime.

The plea is specifically tied to a helicopter flight Easley took in October 2006 with longtime ally McQueen Campbell, the former chairman of the board of trustees at N.C. State University. It is valued at $1,600.

At the time of the flight, Easley's campaign did not disclose it as required on campaign disclosure forms. Then, last year, following a report in The News & Observer about a vehicle that Easley's son had been driving for years, the Easley campaign amended its 2006 report and said that the SUV had been a campaign vehicle at that time.

But the helicopter flight again was not disclosed, which made it either an in-kind campaign contribution or an unreported campaign expense, according to prosecutor William Kenerly of Salisbury.

A document that Easley signed during today's hearing says that he feloniously caused the campaign to file the report as true when, in fact, Easley knew that it wasn't.

The deal did not address an outstanding $95,000 fine Easley's campaign owes to the state Board of Elections. That fine resulted from hearings last year in which Easley and others testified under oath.

Easley will not have to perform any community service. And he will not be on probation.

State law only denies the right to vote to felons who are in prison or on probation or parole, so it appears that Easley will retain his right to vote.

As part of the deal, federal authorities said in a letter to Easley's lawyer that they will close their part of the probe.

The letter says that federal prosecutors had outlined parts of their case to Easley on Nov. 10 and that Easley's lawyer had approached authorities about reaching a settlement in the case in recent weeks.

The letter is signed by the lead federal prosecutors, including Republican George E.B. Holding. It says "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.

They said that while other acts might meet that standard, they also were taking into account the burden on accused persons in multiple prosecutions; the effective utilization of federal resources; and the concept of promoting cooperation between state and federal prosecutors.

As a result of those factors, they wrote, the rest of the case will go away because of Easley's plea in state court: "[T]he ongoing federal investigation of Mr. Easley's conduct will be closed, and this office will decline to bring any charges against Mr. Easley based on the currently known facts."

The state prosecutor, Kenerly, said in a statement that he expects the deal will be criticized. In recent weeks, he had said that he was studying whether part of state campaign law gave immunity to people, such as Easley, who were subpoenaed and then testified in an elections hearing. Easley had answered questions under oath for about five hours on Oct. 29, 2009.

Easley had always denied wrongdoing.

Kenerly, a Republican who has been the district attorney in Rowan County for nearly three decades, said the deal was fair.

"Critics of this plea agreement should understand that it is a resolution giving consideration to vague statutes and hotly contested evidence," Kenerly said in the statement. "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.”

The crowd of reporters and photographers had court officials worried about a mob scene as Easley left the courtroom. Judge Donald Stephens, Wake's chief resident judge, sent word through a TV reporter for the media not to chase Easley as he left.

To do so, he said, would expose them to contempt of court charges.

NC Optometry Board Agrees To License Convicted Felon Jim Black Again

Convicted Felon and former state House Speaker Jim Black can return to work as an eye doctor, the state optometry board has decided.

The North Carolina State Board of Examiners in Optometry agreed this week to restore his license to practice optometry once paperwork is finalized and he pays a fee, a board attorney said Friday.

Black, who served more than three years in federal prison on a government corruption conviction before returning to the Charlotte area last month, surrendered his optometry license voluntarily in 2008 while in prison.

The board has the power to discipline a licensed optometrist convicted of a felony but has latitude to restore the license if it hears evidence or sees proof the applicant has reformed, according to state law.

Black and his attorney, Whit Powell, attended the hearing Thursday in Asheville to make the ex-speaker's case that led to his reinstatement, which was first reported by WRAL-TV. Powell didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

The paperwork should be completed in about 10 days. The license will have to be renewed in January.

The board's deliberations were private, but Johnny Loper, the board's general counsel, said it's reasonable to presume the board took into account that prison officials had released Black. His sentence officially ends April 1. "Since it was not Dr. Black's actions in practicing optometry that put him in prison to start off with, there was no reason why Dr. Black could not return safely to the practice of optometry," Loper said.

Black, now 75, pleaded guilty in 2007 to taking more than $25,000 in cash from chiropractors while he pushed their agenda in the Legislature. Black also accepted punishment on state charges of bribery and obstruction of justice a week after his federal guilty plea, including a $1 million fine.

State prosecutors accused Black of giving former state Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, as much as $58,000 in cash and campaign contributions to switch parties in 2003, a move that helped Black remain co-speaker. Black repeatedly denied that he bribed Decker.

Black led the House as speaker or co-speaker from 1999 through the end of 2006. He resigned from the House one day before the federal criminal plea.

Black and his daughter ran a successful Optometry practice in Charlotte and where he lives in Matthews.

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Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, WRAL, Google Maps

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