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Carolina Journal News Reports

Depositions Could Pose Legal Peril for Easley Aides

Governor also told press officers not to talk to Carolina Journal

Feb. 4th, 2010
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RALEIGH — Several aides to former Gov. Mike Easley could be in legal jeopardy based on conflicting statements they gave in sworn depositions.

Former Press Secretary Renee Hoffman recalled separate orders from communications directors Cari Boyce and Sherri Johnson for public information officers to delete e-mails to and from Easley — who used a private e-mail account to conduct public business. Under oath, Boyce and Johnson denied such a blanket order was issued.

Raleigh attorney and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Kieran Shanahan says these inconsistencies could pose problems.

While it’s not at all unusual for witnesses at depositions to offer somewhat different accounts, Shanahan said, in this instance, “some appear to be more than minimal. Given that we’re talking about criminal conduct” related to the state and federal investigations of Mike Easley, he said, “if [the Easley staffers] knew what they were doing was illegal, I think it becomes an additional building block” for prosecutors.

Shanahan said that the former officials also could face felony charges of perjury, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice if they lied under oath to conceal a “criminal enterprise.”

In addition, Johnson testified that Easley had given PIOs specific instructions not to return media inquiries from Carolina Journal, the monthly newspaper of the John Locke Foundation. “That was the governor’s policy,” Johnson said. Boyce, who began working for Easley in the 1990s when he was attorney general, added the CJ blackout “was a practice that started with our [2000 gubernatorial] campaign operation that carried over into the Governor's Office.” Both testified that no other media organization was similarly ignored.

Johnson noted that she and several other PIOs disobeyed that policy.

“There was no policy” regarding calls from CJ, former Deputy Press Secretary Seth Effron countered, because “they were [sic] not a press organization.” Even so, he said, “If I got a call from someone there, I returned it.”

The former Easley staffers were deposed in late January as part of an open-records lawsuit filed by several media organizations and the John Locke Foundation.

The questions about CJ arose when the four were asked to review an April 2008 affidavit from Debbie Crane. Crane recently had been fired from her position as the public affairs director for the Department of Health and Human Services. The affidavit stated that Easley had ordered state PIOs to communicate potentially sensitive information by phone rather than e-mail and to delete e-mails sent to and from the governor.

When reviewing the affidavit, Hoffman said, “My recollection is that the instruction — I heard Cari give that instruction once during a meeting, and that Sherri called us on the phone another time.” Asked who might have made such an order, Hoffman said, “we would assume that it came from the governor if the governor's press secretary was giving us that instruction.”

Johnson testified that she did not give such an order. Boyce testified that she never advised or instructed any administration employee to delete an e-mail from a state account.

Effron is communications director at the state Energy Office. Johnson has a similar position at the Office of State Controller. Boyce is vice president of corporate communications at Progress Energy. Hoffman has retired and lives in Black Mountain.

The former staffers disclosed that Easley used a private e-mail account to conduct state business, even though in numerous open-records requests, CJ has never received an e-mail authored by Easley. The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer also have reported that they never have received e-mails from Easley.

Crane’s 2008 affidavit — charging that Easley ordered the deletion of e-mails that should have been considered public records — inspired the open-records lawsuit. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning rejected a motion by the state to dismiss the lawsuit in mid-December and ordered the depositions.

On Jan. 25, before the depositions were taken, Deputy Attorney General Grayson Kelley, on behalf of Gov. Bev Perdue, offered to settle the lawsuit for $20,000 — roughly one-fourth of the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.

Kelley said that he suggested settling the lawsuit, based on "the amount of time and effort that would be involved" preparing for the depositions. Kelley also said that Attorney General Roy Cooper "has always indicated to me that he believed the lawsuit should be settled."

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.

Download the depositions (PDF format):
Renee Hoffman
Cari Boyce
Sherri Johnson
Seth Effron

[Editor's note: This story was updated to include a response from Grayson Kelley and to clarify Superior Court Judge Howard Manning's title.]