Monday, May 11, 2009

N&O: Easley's Secret Flights Skirted the Law

A group of affluent supporters flew the former governor where he wanted to go; the expensive trips, to fundraisers and vacations, were rarely reported.

By J. Andrew Curliss
News & Observer
May 9, 2009

While he was governor, Mike Easley turned a small group of influential North Carolina businessmen into his own private air service, an arrangement Easley kept secret.

Starting in 2003, Easley took at least 25 flights on private jets, some in apparent violation of campaign laws and ethics rules, documents and interviews show. Some flights were free. The value of others exceeded campaign contribution limits.

Records show that the businessmen who flew Easley took him around the state and to such places as Atlanta, Richmond, Washington and Florida. Easley, a Democrat who left office in January, appointed some of the benefactors to boards that oversee state transportation networks, the state's largest universities and other state functions.

A review of state flight logs, records of private and political travel, Easley's campaign reports and previously unavailable "governor's event" forms from the state Highway Patrol raise questions about the privileges Easley accepted while he was a candidate and governor.

A cornerstone of modern election law is that candidates disclose what they take in and spend, allowing the public to see who is bankrolling candidates, and ensuring that limits are not exceeded. Corporations in North Carolina are banned from giving, and individuals are limited to $4,000 per candidate during an election cycle.

"It is very troubling to hear of the possibility of significant violations," said Bob Phillips, who heads the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause North Carolina, which has been active in seeking campaign reform and lobbying for openness. "Think about how many millions of dollars he raised ... and there's this get-something-for-free attitude."

Violations of the campaign-finance laws can result in civil or misdemeanor criminal penalties.

Records and interviews suggest more flights took place than those shown in documents provided to the newspaper after negotiations with the Highway Patrol, custodian of the records because it provides security for the governor.

Significant amounts of time are missing in the patrol documents -- including the entire year of 2005. E-mail messages, interviews and other documents refer to flights for which no other records have been produced.

Easley, who has taken a job at the McGuire Woods law firm and is a national spokesman on education initiatives for the foundation of Bill and Melinda Gates, would not agree to be interviewed.

His campaign lawyer, John Wallace, declined interview requests. Wallace also represents the state Democratic Party on campaign issues. ...

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