By J. Andrew Curliss, staff writer
The N.C. State Bar will revisit the disciplinary order that suspended for two years the law license of former Gov. Mike Easley -- a punishment that allows the former two-term Democrat to practice law again in December 2012.
The punishment order contains incorrect information, the bar's general counsel confirmed in an email message after a report Saturday in The News & Observer.
It is not clear if the overall thrust of the decision to suspend Easley's license for two years will change because of the erroneous information, which described the reasoning for why Easley was receiving the level of punishment he did.
The N&O report showed that the disciplinary order entered in Easley's case was not correct about factors the order says "particularly warrant" the suspension of Easley's law license instead of a disbarment, which is the full loss of the right to practice law.
Typically, according to the bar, a felony conviction of a lawyer leads to the "most severe discipline," which the bar says is "often disbarment."
Easley was convicted of a felony in Nov. 2010 after reaching a plea deal to end lengthy state and federal investigations of him. Easley entered what's known as an Alford guilty plea in state court, which means he can maintain innocence, but pleads guilty and agrees there was sufficient evidence for a judge or jury to find him guilty of the crime.
Easley's conviction was tied to the filing by his campaign of a false disclosure report that was in violation of six state laws because the report did not disclose a $1,600 helicopter flight Easley took in Oct. 2006. Easley was fined $1,000 for the low-level felony.
While the plea ended the criminal investigations, the state bar also looked into the case because it is the state agency responsible for regulating and disciplining lawyers in North Carolina. Easley, a former state attorney general, has been a lawyer since 1976 and was subject to professional discipline because of the felony, the bar said.
The bar ended its probe last month by filing a complaint that said Easley showed "professional unfitness" as a lawyer. A hearing was set for Friday. As the hearing began, the sides announced the agreement to the two-year suspension.
Factors 'warrant' lesser discipline
The written order that outlines the suspension, which was accepted by the bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission, listed six factors "that particularly warrant lesser discipline" than the loss of Easley's law license.
According to the agreement, the factors pointing to lesser discipline are:
1. There is "no evidence" that Easley had "actual knowledge" of the content of the campaign finance report that led to his felony conviction.
2. Easley's "denial of such knowledge is credible" because he did not sign the report and because "when the report was prepared and filed he was Governor and was involved in governing the State."
3. The felony of which Easley was convicted is "the lowest level felony under North Carolina law."
4. Easley accepts "personal responsibility for his own actions and for the actions of his campaign committee."
5. There is "no evidence of dishonest conduct or dishonest motive."
6. Easley is "genuinely remorseful."
But there are questions about at least three of those factors.
The felony report's content
It is not clear why the bar's agreement says that there is no evidence Easley had knowledge of the content of the finance report.
The campaign report that led to Easley's felony conviction was filed by his campaign amid growing questions after reports in The N&O in early 2009 showed that a vehicle driven by Easley's son was not owned by the Easley family.
The vehicle was owned by a car dealer and Easley friend, Robert Bleecker.
Easley had offered differing explanations about the arrangement.
But then, on April 17, 2009, the campaign disclosed for the first time that the vehicle was, according to the new campaign filing, a campaign vehicle for some period of time.
A lawyer for the campaign, John Wallace, wrote to elections officials that day and said the campaign had "determined" what happened with the vehicle issue. The campaign acknowledged the vehicle had not been paid for, and made a series of disclosure filings to amend past reports to reflect that. The campaign then settled up the past unpaid charges.
Easley was asked about that in a hearing at the end of 2009.
Easley testified that he was personally involved in fixing the problem, and that he went to two staffers to help clear it up. They told him there hadn't been payments made on the vehicle, Easley testified.
"That's what got me looking at this and very concerned about it," Easley testified to elections board members. "I then inquired of John Wallace, and he confirmed that there had been no payments made."
Easley said the work then started to clear it up.
"When we ran into the problem with (the vehicle) not having been paid ... our election committee attorney, John Wallace, and Rick Gammon got with Bob Bleecker's attorney, and to my understanding they were able to figure out what needed to be done to make sure that he was properly paid," Easley testified.
Gammon is a lawyer who worked closely with Easley.
While the April 17 filing and a payment to Bleecker cleared up the car issue, the campaign report wasn't all truthful, according to prosecutors.
That's because the campaign failed to also disclose Easley's 2006 helicopter flight -- the second such disclosure report to fail to do so. In all, dozens of flights were not reported by the campaign, according to one of Easley's friends who flew him, McQueen Campbell of Raleigh.
A criminal information document filed by special state prosecutor William Kenerly of Rowan County said that Easley "caused" the false report to be filed by the campaign on April 17, 2009, and that Easley "knew the amended report was not true and correct."
Easley's denial 'credible'
The bar's agreement with Easley says the former governor's denial of any knowledge about that report is credible because he didn't sign it and because he was governing at the time.
But Easley was not governing the state in April 2009. That is four months after Easley left office.
It is correct that Easley did not sign the report in question.
The disclosure form was signed by Easley campaign treasurer Joseph A. Newsome. The campaign report form includes a required paragraph that specifies the disclosure report is certified as "true and correct."
However, Newsome added a phrase to that in his own handwriting, saying the form was correct "to the best of my knowledge. JAN."
Newsome did not write that same qualifying language on previous, regular disclosures.
Newsome could not be reached.
Easley also has come under criticism for not paying a $100,000 fine issued against his campaign, tied to free flights he received.
Easley said in court at the time of his plea deal that, "The buck has to stop somewhere. It stops with me, and I take responsibility for what has occurred in this incident."
Kenerly, a veteran Republican prosecutor who retired after the Easley case, said after the conviction that paying the campaign fine in full would be the "honorable thing for him to do."
Bob Hall, executive director of the campaign finance watchdog Democracy North Carolina, said at the time and again on Sunday in an interview that it was good when Easley said that in court. Hall and others noted that state law does not hold candidates responsible for their campaign's misdeeds. A number of fines remain unpaid.
Easley's committee has paid $5,335 toward the fine, according to elections officials, but ran out of money and incurred more than $200,000 in debts, mostly on lawyers.
"I don't understand how they could say he's taken responsibility for the campaign when the fine isn't paid," Hall said. "How could anyone say that?"
Elections officials said Friday that the unpaid amount remains about $94,700. Payments benefit schools.
The bar confirms errors
Katherine Jean, the general counsel at the state bar, acknowledged the incorrect information but did not indicate that it would lead to a substantial change. She said she will bring it to the attention of the Disciplinary Hearing Commission. Its chairwoman is Sharon B. Alexander, who presided over the Easley hearing on Friday.
Jean wrote in an email message: "I ... agree that there is language in the order that does not accurately reflect what was intended. The order inadvertently fails to identify the distinction in the time periods when the defendant was Governor and when the different reports were filed. I will bring this issue to the attention of the DHC and request that the order be clarified. Thank you for pointing this out. I certainly want to make sure the order accurately reflects what was intended."
At the hearing on Friday, Jean had said that she researched past cases in also trying to decide the extent of Easley's punishment.
Jean said that lawyers who were convicted of felonies for drug abuse or for improper federal tax filings had also received punishments less than disbarment. Those reasons were not listed in the written order.