RALEIGH — A disciplinary panel for lawyers stopped short Friday of disbarring former North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley for his campaign finance-related conviction in 2010, saying there was no evidence he knew the contents of a document that served as the basis for the felony.
Instead, the three-member Disciplinary Hearing Commission panel suspended the law license of the two-term Democrat for another 11 months, meaning he could resume practicing law in December. His license was suspended in December 2010 while the North Carolina State Bar investigated his case.
Easley accepted criminal responsibility in November 2010 for an improperly filed campaign finance report, ending both state and federal investigations into the ex-governor that began shortly after he left office in early 2009. Easley’s Alford plea for the lowest-grade felony in state law focused on a 2006 helicopter flight, valued at $1,600, that wasn’t reported in an amended campaign finance report filed in April 2009.
Lawyers convicted of felonies often are disbarred, but the signed agreement says the panel concluded a lesser punishment — a suspension that effectively lasts two years — was suitable because of the circumstances. Easley also must pay more than $1,100 in administrative fees and other expenses.
“There is no evidence that Easley had actual knowledge of the content of the campaign report,” the agreement stated. “His denial of such knowledge is credible because he did not sign the report” and he was involved with governing the state when the original campaign committee finance report was prepared, it said.
The agreement was consistent with the results of the State Bar’s investigation, which were discussed during a hearing Friday in downtown Raleigh. The governor didn’t attend the hearing, which lasted less than a half-hour. Katherine Jean, the State Bar lawyer who signed the formal disciplinary complaint filed last month against Easley, offered copies of the finance report and other exhibits during the hearing.
The State Bar’s investigation “could not prove that Mr. Easley participated in the preparation of the report or the filing of the report, or that Mr. Easley had knowledge that an incomplete or false report was going to be submitted,” Jean said Friday.
Furthermore, Easley accepted personal responsibility for the contents of the campaign report that formed the basis of the underlying conviction and there’s no evidence of dishonest conduct or motive, the signed agreement said.
In his criminal case, Easley acknowledged under an Alford plea that the state had enough evidence to convict him but he didn’t admit he was guilty of a crime. He was fined $1,000 and court costs, but the felony conviction left him subject to the State Bar’s scrutiny.
The five-page document, also signed by Easley, his attorney and Jean, said any sanction less than suspension “would fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the offense committed by (Easley), would not adequately protect the public and would send the wrong message to attorneys and the public regarding the conduct” expected by State Bar members.
The agreement means Easley, a former state attorney general and local prosecutor, could return to his line of work. He’d have to file a license reinstatement request with the State Bar. The request in part will have to provide evidence showing he hasn’t been practicing law during the suspension period.
After leaving office, Easley, 60, joined the McGuireWoods law firm but is no longer working there. Easley graduated from the North Carolina Central University law school and was admitted to the State Bar in 1976.
Easley attorney Alan Schneider said federal and state criminal investigations and the State Bar examination culminated in the ex-governor’s “acceptance of responsibility for his campaign’s failure to report a single flight.”
“Now is a time for all of us to accept the fact that these investigations revealed, and the facts show very clearly, that Governor Easley is not a dishonest person,” Schneider said in a prepared statement, adding that “he has served the people of North Carolina with grace, dignity, and honor, and it is time to put this matter behind us and allow Gov. Easley to move on with his life.”
The State Board of Elections fined Easley’s campaign committee $100,000 for failing to report dozens of campaign flights and sent the case to prosecutors for potential charges, leading to the November 2010 plea. The Mike Easley Committee didn’t pay more than $95,000 of that amount because it ran out of money. The committee, which is now inactive, listed $211,000 in debt as of last June.