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Easley Plea 'Sad End,' Prosecutor Says

During his two terms as governor, Mike Easley's love of helicopters was a running joke in Raleigh . So there's a certain irony in the fact that it was a helicopter ride that put him into the history books. "Do you now personally plead guilty to this offense of certification of a false campaign finance report with an alleged offense date of April 17, 2009?" Wake County Superior Court Judge Osmond Smith asked Easley. "Yes, your Honor," Easley responded. Easley accepted a plea deal for filing a false campaign report - a class I felony, the lowest level possible. Prosecutors say Easley failed to report a 2006 flight to Southport provided by his McQueen Campbell, a political ally whom Easley appointed to the NC State Board of Trustees. The flight's $1,600 value should have been listed as a donation. But it didn't show up in his campaign finance report at the time, and it was also absent from an amended report he filed in 2009. That was the felony. Easley entered an Alford plea, which means he doesn't admit guilt, but concedes there's enough evidence to convict him. But in a short statement to the court, he did take responsibility for the lapse. "Our campaigns over the years have made errors - financial errors, contributions, expenditures. We've tried to correct them when we could. However, as the candidate, I have to take responsibility for what the campaign does. The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me. And I take responsibility for what occurred," he said in court. Easley's penalty is a $1,000 fine plus court costs. No jail time, no probation, no community service. Special Prosecutor Bill Kenerly says he offered the deal because he didn't find evidence of criminal corruption. "Campaign money was not used inappropriately. It was reported incorrectly, in my judgment, and that's what led to this plea," Kenerly said. "But it was not money that, anywhere that I have found, that was used illegally." Kenerly says no North Carolina governor has ever been convicted of a felony for actions while in office. He says it's historic. "Regardless of punishment, regardless of any Alford pleas, it's a significant and sad end to this story." Federal and state prosecutors say the case is closed, and no further investigations are pending. That's after 22 months of work by the FBI, the IRS, and a federal grand jury, plus a year-long probe by state investigators. Hundreds of interviews and scores of subpoenas, looking into Easley's real estate, his family cars, his golf club dues, his home repairs, his friends, investments, his wife's job at NC State. Easley's defense attorney, Joe Cheshire, had plenty to say after yesterday's hearing. He said investigators had probed every possible aspect of the Easley family's life, looking for evidence of corruption. "And if ever there was an example of it ending not with a bang but with a whimper, this is a perfect example of that," Cheshire said. The outcome has a lot of people scratching their heads. How could a two-year investigation that touched almost every powerful person in the state yield so little? "The fact is, it just doesn't make any sense," says Mike Munger, chairman of the political science department at Duke. He says the case may have been affected by a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a type of fraud charge called "denial of honest services." Prosecutors often use it in corruption cases because it's easier to prove than bribery or racketeering. In North Carolina , U.S. Attorney George Holding used it against former Lottery Commissioner Kevin Geddings back in 2006. But this summer, the Supreme Court severely restricted its use. "Denial of honest services is no longer really a viable charge," Munger says. "And so you have to look for a much more difficult charge to make, and that is that it wasn't negligence, but that he actually knew. I'm not sure they could have convicted him on a federal charge." But Joe Cheshire says the honest services ruling has nothing to do with it. He says the only case there ever was against his client was the one that was tried in the press. He called out the ( Raleigh ) News and Observer and other outlets for writing article after article portraying Easley as corrupt. "These things succeeded in trashing Governor Easley, in trashing his wife, in trashing his family, and in trashing the state's political process and the citizens' respect for government. And it did so before any charging authority had completed any investigation and determined what the truth was." News and Observer Executive Editor John Drescher doesn't buy that. He says he stands behind every story his paper has run. "I'm proud of our reporting on the gifts and favors received by Governor Easley," he says. "All that reporting was based on documents, sworn testimony, and on-the-record interviews. For every story, we gave Governor Easley a chance to comment. I think if you look back, you¿ll see our reporting has been right on the money." What's next for the former governor is unclear. Cheshire says Easley has lost his job at the Raleigh law firm McGuire Woods. The former governor's felony will trigger the suspension of his law license, too, pending a hearing before the state Bar. Cheshire says Easley will fight to get it back.