Capital Goods - January 2011

Easley and the enablers
By Scott Mooneyham

Mike Easley always has been a charming fellow. Despite being a bit of a loner, the former governor could light up a room, whether it was filled with business people pressing their policy interests or a prison work detail come to hang Christmas decorations at the Executive Mansion. You hit a lot of bases when you can do spot-on impersonations of Hank Hill or Jim Hunt. But considering his frequent absences from some of the perfunctory events his predecessors always made, you wondered whether he really wanted to be there, whether the appearance hid the truth. Maybe that charm helped lead to his downfall.

When people always laugh at your jokes, it becomes easy to believe everyone flocks to you because of that great sense of humor. Those with business interests before the state — whether developers who want environmental permits or utility executives who want regulatory changes — don’t hang around governors because of their charm. Those who seek appointments to powerful governmental policymaking and regulatory boards don’t do favors just because the recipients are appealing people.

None of the developers or wealthy fundraisers who enabled his fall — the folks who offered up those free plane flights and a discounted coastal land deal — were around when Easley stood before a judge in a Wake County courtroom. Looking straight ahead, he answered, “Yes, your honor,” to a series of questions. When they ended, he became North Carolina’s first governor convicted of a felony for actions while in office, copping to knowingly filing a false campaign report.

The plea deal didn’t result in any prison time, leading to Internet chatter and Thanksgiving conversations that he had gotten off easy. Maybe. But a year in prison couldn’t have been worse than the disgrace. A few decades earlier, he had been a corruption-busting prosecutor going after politicians caught with their hands in the cookie jar. His attorney described the former governor and his wife, Mary, as broken people. Joe Cheshire is one of the best criminal lawyers in the state, and part of his defense apparently involved trying to immediately repair Easley’s image.

Even if that was a bit of an embellishment, it’s not unreasonable to feel some sympathy for the man. Easley came into office as something of a political outsider with a small circle of friends. Many were fellow state prosecutors or people he had worked with as attorney general. That inner circle came to include his fundraisers, wealthy business movers and shakers whom he appointed to coveted positions on university boards, the Board of Transportation or the Wildlife Resources Commission.

But were they really his friends? He may have come to think so. Not too many people would conclude today that they did him any favors. And so a sad chapter of North Carolina politics comes to an end. But there is reason to believe that another disgraceful chapter of political corruption will follow in the not-so-distant future. Once federal prosecutors move forward with the sentencing of former Easley aide Ruffin Poole, who has pleaded guilty to a single count of income-tax evasion, that’s probably it. The scandal will have played out. This station now returns to its regular programming.

And so the enablers walk away, maybe having made a few lawyers a bit richer but otherwise unscathed. The developers can go back to developing (if the real-estate market ever turns around). The fundraisers can go back to fundraising. The movers and shakers can go back to moving and shaking. There’s always another crop of politicians to influence, even if laws have to be skirted or ignored entirely. The same thing happened when three chiropractors stuffed cash into the pockets of then-House Speaker Jim Black and, before that, when a carnival-ride operator gave a bag of cash to Meg Scott Phipps, the agriculture commissioner who was the daughter and granddaughter of governors. The politicians went to prison, but the chiropractors were never charged with a crime — never even had their professional licenses suspended — and the carnival-ride operator skated, too.

The public doesn’t elect those folks. They weren’t betraying a public trust. Maybe they shouldn’t be held to the same standards as the politicians. But when these scandals always end with the corruption enablers walking, why should anyone expect that more of them won’t show up later to offer up another round of goodies to still another politician? And what kind of message is being sent to all of the interest groups, their lobbyists and other representatives who play the game while staying within the lines?

It would surely have been a different one if Easley had had a little company in the courtroom.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.