By now America is familiar with the epidemic of troubling behavior that’s swept the nation’s governorships, in recent years with John Rowland in Connecticut and George Ryan in Illinois for the Republicans; Don Siegelman in Alabama, Eliot Spitzer in New York and Rod Blagojevich in Illinois for the Democrats.
It may be time to add to that list.
Here in North Carolina recently replaced (thanks to term limits) Gov. Mike Easley, a Democrat, is under investigation by federal authorities, and by the State Board of Elections. The number of charges against him could surpass those of his above-mentioned colleagues, and the issues under investigation stress the word-limit of your average opinion column. Local media have focused on four major areas:
The revelations began with stories published in 2006 by Carolina Journal, the monthly publication of the conservative/libertarian John Locke Foundation. Reporter (and my former co-worker) Don Carrington discovered that Easley purchased one of the most attractive properties in a proposed 525-lot luxury coastal community called Cannonsgate, in North Carolina’s Carteret County. Land records show the former governor paid $549,880, or 3 percent above the assessed tax value, in December 2005. Other lots in the development sold anywhere from 17 percent to 37 percent above the tax-assessed value, and a year after Easley’s purchase his tax assessors appraised the value of his land at $1.2 million. Was it a half-price special?
Belying the simple “sweet deal” nature of the transaction was that four of the governor’s campaign contributors (who are also major donors to the state Democrat Party) nursed the sale along. Of those four, Easley appointed three of them to key state board appointments.
During his tenure both Carolina Journal and The News & Observer of Raleigh published occasional reports about Easley’s weekend use of state-owned aircraft to shuttle him from Raleigh to his coastal home in Southport, N.C., usually with a ribbon-cutting or jobs announcement stop in between so as to write the flights off as part of his public duties. But it turns out those weren’t the only aviation freebies he received.
On May 9 and 10 The N&O produced a two-part series about the former governor’s dependence on a few influential state businessmen for “his own private air service.” The newspaper detailed how a handful of Easley pals — also campaign donors and appointees to various state boards or positions – provided him with free jaunts around the state and to places like Atlanta and Florida. Some of the trips were not reported, as required by state ethics disclosure requirements or campaign finance laws. Many of the campaign-related air travel gifts would have exceeded the individual contribution limits of $4,000 per election cycle had they been reported.
In addition many records of Easley’s travel –- especially those under the custody of his security detail, the N.C. Highway Patrol — are missing. This fits with the practice of the former governor’s eight years in office, in which his staff routinely destroyed email communications in violation of state law. Several news organizations sued Easley last year over the missing records.
Last month The N&O also reported how both Easley’s wife, Mary, and his son, Michael Jr., received free use of vehicles owned by prominent auto dealers in the state. One, NASCAR kingpin Rick Hendrick, allowed Mrs. Easley for weeks to drive a 2009 Honda Accord that his dealership had purchased during the last week of the governor’s administration. Another dealer in the Fayetteville area has owned a 2000 GMC Yukon that the junior Easley has operated for some time.
The governor originally explained that the Honda was “a loaner” until Mrs. Easley’s “car came in,” but documents obtained by The N&O show that the car she ended up with – another Accord not purchased until after the paper started asking questions – was anything but a custom model built to her specs. Instead it was found at a dealership in nearby Anderson, S.C., where it had sat since October 2008. As for the Yukon, Easley originally explained that it was being leased, but DMV records showed otherwise. A few weeks after the story he filed revised reports with the State Board of Elections, claiming the SUV was a “campaign vehicle” from 2003 through part of 2005, after which it was converted to personal use. But neither Easley nor his campaign paid anything for the Yukon until last month.
Last under suspicion is a job created at N.C. State University for Mrs. Easley, in which she would manage a speaker series and teach a few classes. The position was developed by Larry Nielson, who was to serve only on an interim basis as University Provost and was about to be replaced. But he lasted long enough to employ the governor’s wife, who eventually ended up with a five-year, $850,000 contract. Under odd circumstances Nielson’s position then became permanent, after Mrs. Easley’s hire.
A common thread through three of the areas under investigation is an Easley friend: McQueen Campbell. This real estate broker and private pilot helped the governor with his coastal land deal; piloted several of his free flights; and, as an Easley appointee (twice) to the N.C. State University Board of Trustees, apparently influenced Nielson into hiring Mrs. Easley. Both Campbell and Nielson originally denied any special treatment for the governor’s wife but now Campbell has changed his story. Nielson resigned under pressure last week and UNC system President Erskine Bowles has asked Campbell to resign his position on the N.C. State board, which he did on Friday.
One of the auto dealers and a broker of Easley’s land deal have acknowledged to The N&O that they were questioned by federal authorities. The U.S. Attorney and the State Board of Elections have launched investigations into the governor’s campaign reports and has requested all travel records from the Highway Patrol. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. Attorney won’t be able to harvest indictments out of this rich soil of patronage Easley has seeded.
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