Opinion: Carolina Beat

Easley evasions should not surprise

He ducked scrutiny while attorney general

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 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?

The idea that a law enforcer (Easley was the state’s attoney general before becoming governor) — 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 Easley 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.

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.

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?

The company’s Dick Stolfa told me in a 2000 telephone interview that a local Democratic political advertising company (with a direct mail emphasis) called The Strategy Group Inc. produced the consumer alert brochures.

Stolfa characterized the flyer as “a political piece for him (Easley) to run for governor.”

The Strategy Group’s Peter Giangreco, a partner with the firm, 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.”

Easley’s campaign in 2000 formally used The Strategy Group for his political advertisements, paying them more than $115,000 for consulting and mailer production.

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 on July 21, 1999, the Easley campaign paid Philadelphia-based Democratic consultancy Shorr & Associates more than $2,300 for what was described as “media production” — the campaign’s only purchase for media production in 1999.

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.

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.

Carrington and I were stonewalled in the way the Raleigh media grew familiar with during Easley’s eight years as governor. 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.

Paul Chesser is a former associate editor of Carolina Journal and a special correspondent for the Heartland Institute.