(This week's Daily Journal guest columnist is Paul Chesser, a former associate editor of Carolina Journal and a special correspondent for the Heartland Institute.)
Often when a public official is suspected (indicted, convicted) of misbehavior, observers ask, “How could this happen to such a good man (or woman)?” Or the political chatterers bemoan how, once again, power is intoxicating ether.
With revelations pouring forth from The News & Observer about former Gov. Mike Easley, his contributing cronies, and state and federal investigations into his relationships and gifts, those whispers are heard again. How could he? Raleigh-based syndicated columnist Scott Mooneyham echoed the muttering, “If a former state prosecutor (Easley served as attorney general prior to his election as governor) is susceptible to such corruption, they all are.” And my former boss, John Locke Foundation President John Hood, says the Raleigh political class “seem to have a hard time understanding how such intelligent people could have made so many unwise decisions.”
The idea that a law enforcer – even a top one – is incapable of crossing ethical barriers (if not blatant corruption) is fanciful, if not delusional. In fact, there were indications during Easley’s first campaign for governor – while he was attorney general – that he was willing to breach ethics in his pursuit for political power.
In 1999, after Easley knew he would run for governor the following year, he added Democratic campaign strategists to his Department of Justice staff, including Jay Reiff and Amanda Crumley. Both would eventually join Easley’s gubernatorial campaign. The team began to put together messaging to raise Easley’s profile, to help give him an advantage against primary opponents – chiefly Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker.
Council of State officials often use their public information budgets to enhance the public’s recognition of them – think of Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry’s photo in every elevator, or former Treasurer Richard Moore on television giving away money from the unclaimed property fund.
Attorney General Easley and his staff adopted their own approach in 1999. As the gubernatorial election approached, the DOJ began a public service announcement campaign highlighting Easley’s fight against predatory lending, with an eye towards print and broadcast media that reached minority and low-income audiences. Glossy brochures were created, newspaper ads were designed, and radio ads were written, cut, and aired. But the campaign had to finish by the end of the year, since North Carolina law prohibits such advertisements during election years.
At issue is who did the work for the attorney general, and with what motive, since the advertising was paid for from public funds, out of an account filled with money won in Easley’s consumer fraud cases. DOJ spokesmen claimed their own staff developed the ads. But evidence uncovered by me (writing at the time for the now-defunct Triad World newspaper) and by Don Carrington of Carolina Journal showed that contractors for Easley’s campaign for governor created the ads and placed them in the media.
A slick, glossy brochure with direct mail capability was created for the predatory lending education initiative, but DOJ’s expenditure for its printing went suspiciously to a company in Chicago: Service Web Offset Corporation. Why a printer in the far-away Midwest?
My phone call in 2000 to the company’s Dick Stolfa revealed the answer. He said a local Democratic political advertising company (with a direct mail emphasis) called The Strategy Group Inc. produced the consumer alert brochures.
“I know it came from The Strategy Group. There’s no question about that,” Stolfa said. He characterized the flyer as “a political piece for him to run for governor.”
I then contacted The Strategy Group and Peter Giangreco, a partner with the firm who would work on all of Easley’s gubernatorial campaigns, but he denied knowing anything about the public service announcements.
“No, we haven’t done anything for the attorney general’s office,” Giangreco said. “We’ve worked on his campaign – that’s what we do: we work on campaigns.”
A bulk mail identifier on the brochure included the initials “SGI.”
Easley’s campaign later (in 2000) formally used The Strategy Group for his political advertisements, paying them more than $115,000 for consulting and mailer production.
Meanwhile, Stolfa noted the oddity of his work for Easley and Giangreco. He said he printed 50,000 brochures from the artwork he received from The Strategy Group and billed the N.C. Department of Justice. Stolfa said that was odd; he usually billed The Strategy Group for all printing work.
“That was unusual,” said Stolfa. “I don’t think we’ve ever done that before.”
The summer of 1999 brought a flurry of broadcast advertisements about predatory lending on North Carolina radio stations. The attorney general’s special account paid for production, recording, and radio airtime, and Easley’s office paid Baker Sound Studios in Philadelphia to cut the ads.
Why use a facility three states away when equal talent and services are available in Raleigh, and where the state government-owned Agency for Public Telecommunications is also at your disposal?
The answer was likely connected to another Democratic consultancy firm utilized by Easley: Philadelphia-based Shorr & Associates (now Shorr Johnson Magnus), led by strategist Saul Shorr, whose office was approximately one block away from Baker Sound Studios.
On July 21, 1999, the Easley campaign paid Shorr & Associates more than $2,300 for what was described as “media production” – the campaign’s only payment to Shorr in 1999, and the only purchase for media production in 1999.
Media production is often followed by a media buy (newspaper ads or radio spots). The Easley campaign made no media buy following the July media production payment to Shorr, but the Department of Justice public funds paid several media outlets to broadcast the ads shortly thereafter.
A representative from Baker confirmed that Shorr was the source of the ad production in a phone call with Don Carrington, who reported the conversation in Carolina Journal at the time.
“We’re a production facility, but they (Shorr & Associates) wrote it, cast it, and everything else,” the Baker employee told Carrington. Also, an invoice from Baker to the Department of Justice noted that studio time was reserved by “A. Johnson.” Searches and public records requests showed that no one with the surname “Johnson” worked for DOJ at the time, but that an Andrea Johnson worked for Easley’s campaign consultant, Shorr. She is now a full partner in Shorr’s firm.
The attorney general’s office ran the public service ads primarily on black-oriented and country radio stations, targeting minority and low income North Carolinians. Money for airtime was paid to radio station owners out of DOJ’s public funds.
Meanwhile, Easley’s office would not reveal who in DOJ did the work to produce the ads, except to say in a fax, “these announcements were developed by Department of Justice staff … .” The office did not release the names of any department employees who worked on the ads.
DOJ staff doing campaign work?
The staff of Easley’s Republican opponent in 2000, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, believed the attorney general had his government staff do campaign work. “I think he was paying his political operatives to work in the Department of Justice,” said Carter Wrenn, a Vinroot strategist.
The ad campaign coincided with the hiring by DOJ of campaign consultant Jay Reiff in 1999. According to financial records, from February to August 1999 Reiff was contracted by Easley to assist with policy, communication, and legislative issues for $7,000 a month.
While under contract with the attorney general, Reiff was reimbursed by Easley’s campaign for expenses. Reiff was compensated almost $4,000 for telephone, office, postage, computer, travel, and research expenses in April 1999. Easley’s campaign paid Reiff almost $7,800 in July 1999 for equipment, furniture, and research. Reiff formally joined the Easley campaign later in the year, and the following year spokeswoman Amanda Crumley moved from DOJ to his campaign as well.
As Carrington and I sought records and called to get questions answered in 2000 for our stories, we were stonewalled in the way the Raleigh media grew familiar with during Easley’s eight years as governor. The documentary evidence seemed clear, but Attorney General Easley did not feel compelled to provide explanations.
His ability to escape scrutiny carried over into his governorship. The Raleigh media and political class may be murmuring now, but had they paid attention as the century changed, they would have had an inkling of what they were getting with Easley.