Vintage Easley for better or worse

Vintage Easley for better or worse

- in Fitzsimon File

Folks waiting for a bombshell from the much-anticipated testimony of former Governor Mike Easley before the State Board of Elections Wednesday were left disappointed.  What they got instead was vintage Easley, relaxed, confident and personable. It started before the hearings began when Easley thanked the members of the board for their service and noted that he had appointed some of them.

Easley was almost overly polite during his testimony that ran just short of five hours and he peppered his answers to questions with his familiar homespun clichés, referring to his arrangement with a car dealer as loosey goosey and describing one effort as difficult as pulling hen's teeth.

Easley shook hands with reporters and audience members during a break, working the room like he was still running for office. It almost made you forget what the hearings and controversy were all about.

Almost. When Easley was asked about specific allegations that he used campaign money to pay for repairs on his house,  took almost a hundred unreported campaign flights on corporate planes, and was involved in a scheme to get around campaign finance limits, he gave several variations of the same answer.

He didn't know anything about any of that or couldn't recall exactly, and those things were all handled by other people anyway, campaign officials, administrative assistants, fundraisers, etc. 

Easley may have been skillful in avoiding questions, but it still seemed clear he was avoiding many of them. His claims of ignorance ranged from the believable to the absurd. Not only did he not keep up with campaign invoices or the details of leasing cars, he wasn't involved in major fundraising strategy and didn't even know where his 2004 campaign headquarters was located.

Easley also professed to be unaware of major financial transactions of his campaign, like the transfer of $50,000 to Democratic Party.  The claims fit with a long-standing characterization of Easley as detached from the day to operations of state government as governor.

But ironically, Easley repeatedly cited his policy work as the reason he wasn't more involved in the details of his campaigns, mentioning his work to pass the lottery, establish a pre-k program and improve the state's business climate.

Easley involvement with a housing development on the coast and the circumstances surrounding his wife Mary's job at N.C. State are still under investigation by federal authorities. The State Board of Elections will decide if they should turnover the evidence uncovered in their hearings to the Wake County District Attorney's office for possible criminal prosecution.

The Board members' decision comes down to who they believe, Easley or his longtime political associate McQueen Campbell.  Campbell is a pilot and says he flew Easley around state on almost 100 flights that were not reported by the campaign.

Easley says Campbell told him he had been paid for all the flights, which Campbell disputes, and Easley said that the campaign was never billed for the travel by Campbell's company.

Campbell is also a general contractor who supervised repairs on Easley's house while the Easleys were living in the governor's mansion.  Campbell testified that when he complained about not being paid for repair work Easley told him to create an invoice for flights to cover it. Easley repeatedly denied that he ever told Campbell to submit what he said was a bogus invoice.

It was not illegal to use campaign funds for personal expenses then. The law has changed since, but it was illegal to misreport the use of campaign funds.

Easley also testified at length about the relationship between his campaign and the North Carolina Democratic Party, answering allegations that the campaign tried to circumvent individual campaign limits by encouraging donors to give money to the party instead and designate it for use for the Easley campaign.

Easley said he had never seen a memo outlining that strategy and that he would have run the plan by the lawyer for his campaign had he seen it.

Through it all Easley kept his cool and never seemed the least bit annoyed, even when asked the same questions again and again. His answers often veered off track, but not quite enough to make a follow-up question obvious.

It was a masterful performance overall in what could have been a hostile setting. Now the Board must decide who to believe and what to make of a governor who once again defied conventional wisdom by testifying at all and left you wondering in the end what he really said.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.
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