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Former Governor Easley Avoids Disbarment Despite Felony Conviction

Former Governor Mike Easley (left in suit) testifies in hearings in Raleigh in 2010 regarding his campaign practices. Photo by The Raleigh Telegram.

By Lois Alley, The Raleigh Telegram

RALEIGH – Despite a felony conviction for federal campaign violations, former North Carolina Governor Mike Easley will be able to keep his law license and practice law within the state after he completes a temporary suspension that will expire in December of this year, says a ruling by the NC State Bar that was filed this week in Raleigh. 

The State Bar finding is unusual in that most felony convictions result in an almost automatic disbarment for most attorneys in North Carolina.  In a copy of the finding filed with the Wake County clerk of court today, the commission admitted that Easley was being treated differently than most attorneys would be if they had been convicted of a felony.

“Ordinarily, conviction of a felony warrants imposition of the most severe discipline, often disbarment,” said the commission in its filed statements.  “This is because felony convictions often involve dishonest or untrustworthy character that is not worthy of the public trust.”

Easley served as governor of the state from 2001-2009 and also as attorney general in North Carolina from 1992-2000 after he had served as a prosecutor in eastern North Carolina. 

After he left office, investigative reports by the Carolina Journal and News & Observer newspapers showed campaign violations had occurred when flights that were donated to Easley’s campaign were not recorded.  In other reports, it was found that Easley had received preferential treatment on land deals, that a job with a $170,000 salary for Mrs. Easley at NC State University was possibly arranged by a friend of the Easleys, that a free car was on loan to their son by a dealership was not reported in campaign filings, and other irregularities had occurred.

In April of 2010, former Easley aide Ruffin Poole made a plea bargain to reduce the number of charges against him from 57 down to one charge of tax evasion in exchange for his cooperation in the case.

In November of 2010, although Poole went to jail, Easley avoided jail time by entering a plea deal to avoid federal charges and pled guilty to one state felony charge related to the failure of his campaign not to report a donated flight worth $1,600 during his campaign.

After Easley’s charges were announced in 2010, he resigned from the McGuire Woods lobbying and law firm where he worked with two other former governors, Jim Martin of North Carolina and Jim Hodges of South Carolina.

In papers filed in Wake County court earlier today, the North Carolina State Bar Discliplinary Hearing Commission said that they were going to continue to suspend Easley’s law license through the end of this year, but would not revoke it permanently.

“The Hearing Panel concludes that anything less than suspension would fail to acknowledge the seriousness of the offense committed by Defendant, would not adequately protect the public, and would send the wrong message to attorneys and the public regarding conduct expected of members of the Bar in this state,” said the filing.

The commission also said in its finding of facts that since Easley did not sign the report, then it concluded that “Easley relied on his campaign staff to prepare and file the finance reports…[and the commisson] finds credible Easley’s assertion that he did not have actual knowledge” of the content of his campaign reports.

Under the ruling by the State Bar, Easley’s license to practice law will be suspended through the end of this year and he would have to apply to the bar to be reinstated.  His license would effectively have been suspended for two years since he relinquished his license in 2010.  Easley may practice law after the suspension is over, assuming that the bar finds no reason for further actions.  ::

Article Posted: Saturday, January 7th, 2012.