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28
An astute Raleigh observer says Mike Easley’s problems started when he “chunked” the letter from Carmen Hooker Odom about mental health reform. That led the media to question whether his administration really had opposed the changes. That led to a nasty fight with newspapers about making emails public. That led to questions about why he kept his travels secret.
 
Now we have all this.
 
On one level, this is the perpetual struggle between public officials and the press. Officials want to keep secrets. The press wants to know everything.
 
I’ve always believed that it’s easy for a public official – or a private company or any organization, for that matter – to manage that tension. A little openness, honesty and understanding with the media will pay dividends.
 
But Easley – a private man in a public job – didn’t see it that way. It’s the eternal mystery about Mike: Why did he run for Governor if he didn’t want to be a public figure?
 
And why did he pick this fight with the N&O?
 
My old boss Jim Hunt didn’t always enjoy the grilling he subjected himself to with the media. But he saw a big advantage: He found out things people in his administration didn’t want him to know.
 
Easley took the opposite tack. The wrong one, in my view. Had he been open – and had he addressed the questions and problems that rose, when they rose – he might have avoided this mess.
 
Meanwhile, the N&O’s economic fortunes may be declining, but its prestige and profile are rising.
 
Some Easley partisans want to blame it all on a personal vendetta. But the N&O’s editors can note that the paper’s reporting has stood the test of time – on the mental health and the probation system, for example.
 
The N&O may be cutting staff. But Executive Editor John Drescher has kept his word that the paper’s traditional watchdog role will not be sacrificed.
 
And the N&O has maintained its traditional insistence on open government.
 
Even in a new media world, an old saw prevails: Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel.
 
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28
I’d forgotten The Easley’s soiree’s to Europe – Mike and Mary touring Italy (for $170,000), spending $50,000 on chauffeured Mercedes limousines;—and  Mary zipping over to Paris for $53,000, then jetting to St. Petersburg for $56,000 and dining in the Russian equivalent of Sardi’s (for a $1000 meal).
 
There’s a pattern of sorts here – that’s first cousin to Mike’s home grown penchant for taking free vacations, free private plane flights and free cars from folks seeking favors from state government;—after all, it’s a kind of natural piéce de résistance for the governor to come back from Italy and grab for the loot again by landing his wife a $170,000 job at NCSU as a glorified factotum.
 
In fact there are two patterns here. And the other one is curiouser.
 
A Democratic Congressman, Agriculture Commissioner, Speaker of the House and two legislators have all gone to prison; as a result the surviving Democrats over in the General Assembly have taken to pounding their breasts about how they’re fighting corruption – but, in fact, they haven’t done anything.
 
Now, more or less, all this looks like normal political sleight of hand. But there’s a simpler explanation: The reason the Democrats have done nothing – other than posture – is they just can’t see that there is any corruption.
 
In their eyes junkets to Italy and giving state jobs to the governors’ wife are just two of the natural emoluments of political power;—indulging in a little ‘honest graft’ is a just one of the defacto rights that comes with getting elected and it’s neither unusual or wrong.
 
For instance, take a look at the Democrats reaction to Senate Republican Leader Phil Berger’s saying he wants to defund Mary Easley’s job.
 
The very idea sent the Senate Ethic’s Committee into a paroxysm of rage – it promptly told Berger if he even dared to try to eliminate that job he’d better get ready to get hauled up before the tribunal himself – for violating the Ethics Laws.
 
So here’s the Senate Ethics Committee’s official position: There’s nothing wrong with the governor influence peddling to get his wife a $170,000 job – but if Phil Berger tries to eliminate that job he’s violating State Ethics Law
 
It’s like Alice in Wonderland: Up is down and down is up.
 
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27
Democrats should hope that Republicans mount a full-throated campaign against Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court.
 
Think of the political benefits to Democrats. Republicans will simultaneously alienate women and Hispanics. They’ll look more and more like the party of Cheney and Rush, not Colin Powell. They’ll hasten the day when growing Hispanic majorities turn Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Florida into solid blue states.
 
Maybe they’ll even attack her for being a closet empathizer.
 
I suppose it is possible that the GOP is this much in thrall to its right wing now. It’s almost too much to wish for.
 
President Obama has plenty of political challenges. But he has one of the best things you can have going for you in politics: inept opponents.
 
Stephen Colbert nailed it last week when he spoofed the short-lived GOP idea of renaming the Democratic Party the “Democrat Socialist Party.”
 
Not scary enough, he counseled the GOP: You need to come up with a name for the Democrats that really frightens people, something that guarantees that Americans will never again trust them. The answer is obvious, he concluded: Call them “Republicans.”
 
Nobody will ever vote for them again.
 
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22
John Dean once famously warned Nixon that Watergate was a cancer on his presidency. In the last week, the Easley affair metastasized with stunning swiftness through the body politic.
 
(Can you believe the story line involves a real estate development with the suffix “-gate”?)
 
Let’s examine all the body parts infected by this pandemic, to switch medical metaphors:
 
  • Mike Easley. It’s bad enough to have your legacy jeopardized by a federal investigation. Then you get mentioned in the same breath with John Edwards, the most unpopular man in North Carolina.
 
  • Mary Easley. In one hour – and without saying one word – she lost eight years’ worth of respect and credibility, smiling fixedly while her attorney postured, blustered and lectured.
 
  • N.C. State University. Trustees chairman gone. Provost gone. Chancellor called before a grand jury. Suddenly, hate speech, a broken bell tower and a losing basketball team are the least of our problems. Fans ask: Can’t we blame all this on Lee Fowler and get rid of him, too?
 
  • The State Highway Patrol. It’s never good for a law enforcement agency to have the FBI gathering up your records. And to have the governor order you to keep better records.
 
  • Governor Perdue. She expresses hope it will all be over soon. She might as well wish for the sudden discovery of a heretofore-hidden $5 billion annual revenue source that will let her raise teacher pay and cut taxes.
 
  • The Democratic Party. We wonder if all these corruption cases will make us a minority party in 2010-2012.
 
The only people looking good are Erskine Bowles, Kay Hagan and Bob Jordan. Erskine obviously learned something in the Clinton White House about managing crises. Hagan may be a Washington rookie, but she made a smart play on the U.S. Attorney. And Bob Jordan is simply one of the most decent and honest men I’ve ever met in public life.
 
Some people also want to call into question the N&O and the U.S. Attorney.
 
Easley partisans say the N&O is making a mountainous federal crime out of the molehill of apparent campaign-reporting violations. John Drescher has a grudge with Easley, they say. And Wolfpack fans who remember the Jim Valvano affair see Carolina-blue hints of a J-school conspiracy.
 
Meanwhile, Democrats are poised to associate George Holding with the taint of Bush-era political interference in federal prosecutions.
 
Unfortunately for the critics, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has convicted a string of crooked office-holders. And the N&O usually broke the ground uncovering wrongdoing.
 
Finally, good-government types lament that this affair distracts us from serious matters of state like balancing the budget. Forget them. Budgets are boring. This is interesting!
 
Besides, they are clearly wrong. Raleigh had plenty of bandwidth to devote to the week’s big legislative issue: Cary Allred’s hug of a teenaged page.
 
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22

Mary Easley’s lawyers’ press conference was a spectacle worth buying a ticket to see – except you could watch the whole show free on WRAL.

Most folks speak in plain English but Mrs. Easley’s lawyer thinks and speaks a foreign language called legalese – that in rare moments sounds like English.

The press conference barely got going good when, taking a deep breath and drawing himself up, the lawyer procliamed to the reporters that he not only had a Degree from Duke Law School but, on top of that, had a Doctor of Philosophy Degree from UNC and he’d not only taught at UNC and SMU but in Canada and, what’s more, his philosophical specialty was ethics – so he was a kind of expert. Then he proceeded to demonstrate what they teach as ethics in college must be pretty strange.

Just as bad for poor Mrs. Easley, he also figured the best thing for her to do at her press conference was stand there and keep her mouth shut. So she stood there beside Professor, Doctor, Attorney, Ethics Expert Marvin Schiller doing her best to smile for fifty-eight minutes as he droned on and on, lecturing the poor reporters about the ‘theatre of the absurd’ swirling around Mrs. Easley and pontificating about the ‘undisputed facts’ and how looking at the ‘undisputed facts’ through ‘the correct lens’ would prove to a blind man Mrs. Easley got her job because of her merits – and that being the Governor’s wife had nothing to do with it.

After that Mr. Schiller got down to the bottom line: Mrs. Easley’s got a contract with State College. There’s no way she’s going to resign. Period.

Years ago, Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner wrote three novels (The Hamlet, The Town and The Mansion) about the rise of a strange – and mythic – clan down in Yoknapatawpha County Mississippi.

Flem Snopes left his home in the Mississippi hill country for the flat lands around Jefferson, Mississippi at the turn of the last century. Unburdened by scruples, blessed with devilish cunning and with an indomitable lust for hard cash when he arrived in town he got a job in a café as a cook – and in the blink of an eye owned the cafe.

Then he moved on to the water works where he could not just earn a salary (while not working) but supplement his income by stealing parts, like the brass valves on the boilers. After that a swarm of Snopes’ descended on Jefferson like a plague of locusts – then Flem figured out his real calling was banking and Jefferson, Mississippi was never the same.

It was just lucky for Mississippi Flem Snopes never thought of being Governor.

But Mike Easley did and his high jinx as governor are worthy of the fictional (and mythic) escapades of the Snopes.

First Easley put his ‘cousin’ McQueen Campbell on the Board of NC State University; then, between flying around in McQueen’s plane and making land deals, he stopped long enough to get cousin McQueen to pull a few strings for him.

It seems the Provost at State held his job as a ‘temporary’ appointment;—so (it looks like, even if it’s not a proven fact yet) Mike or McQueen offered to get that job made permanent if, in exchange, the Provost hired Mrs. Easley for $80,000 a year.

Next they waited until a respectable amount of time passed, went back to the Provost and suggested he double Mrs. Easley’s salary and, since Mike was about to leave office, give her a five year contract.

Everything went along fine for another year, until McQueen’s string pulling at State ended up on the front page. 

That prompted the President of UNC, Erskine Bowles, to ask Mrs. Easley to resign. But that kind of thinking didn’t make anymore sense to Governor Easley than it would have, say, to Flem Snopes.

Now, the rest of us might as well face the hard truth: Mike Easley has outsmarted the whole state of North Carolina and getting that job – and $850,000 contract – away from him is going to be like prying a bone out of the jaws of a lion.

After all, that means taking on all the Easley ‘cousins’ still in office;—the legislature is just chock full of them and, down deep, they don’t see much wrong with Mike grabbing that job for his wife.

 

Governor Perdue more or less just rolled her eyes at the idea of a special prosecutor and Marc Basnight – the he-coon of the Senate – made even shorter-shrift of the idea of holding any hearings or investigations in his neck of the woods.

 

I‘ve got to admit to a sneaking admiration for Erskine Bowles – he was the first one to call on McQueen Campbell to resign; the first one to call on Mrs. Easley to resign; and I’ve got to give him credit – he’s stuck to his guns: Right after Mrs. Easley’s lawyers ethical broadside, without blinking ole Erskine called on her to resign again.

 

But the hard truth is if Erskine is going to tackle this pack of alligators alone – it may be like General Pickett’s charge. Wonderful – but bloody.

 

The only other person who’s stood up, besides Bowles, is Republican Phil Berger, who’s leading a one man crusade in the Senate to cut the funding for Mrs. Easley’s job – except the Democrats (who just cut everybody’s pay in state government) don’t see much sense in that.

 

So, in the end, it looks like we’re down to one last razor thin hope: A strange beast called a Grand Jury – which in plain English is a group of ordinary people who were unlucky enough to get themselves drafted onto a federal jury that is going to be sitting in a courtroom in Raleigh for the next six months trying to figure out what to do when a plague of Snopes descend on North Carolina.

 

 

 

 

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20

Things are popping in Raleigh – subpoena’s flying, Grand Juries meeting, FBI agents collecting boxes of evidence (from the Highway Patrol no less).

And, in the pièce de résistance, this morning Senator Kay Hagan shocked everyone by announcing she’s leaving U. S. Attorney George Holding (a Republican) in office until he completes investigations of Governor Mike Easley and Senator John Edwards.

Hagan just sent a message loud and clear that when it comes to corruption she’s sticking to the high road -- and Bev Perdue, Marc Basnight and Joe Hackney could take a lesson from her.  

Bev’s not investigating anyone. Or anything. In one breath she said no to a special prosecutor. In the next breath she announced she’s ‘watching’ the professors at North Carolina State University deal with the Mary Easley scandal. And she put one of her political appointees in charge of finding Governor Easley’s ‘lost’ travel records – the records that mysteriously vanished into thin air when the News and Observer asked to see them.

So, Perdue’s got a political appointee looking for her old buddy, Governor Easley’s ‘lost’ records – so the News and Observer can get it’s hands on them. Anybody want to guess how that story ends?

Over in the Senate, Marc Basnight put the kibosh on a hearing into what happened to the same travel records. Basnight’s factotum unctuously wrote Republican Leader Phil Berger that the Senate Justice Committee won’t be holding any hearings at all – not one. Then he wrapped himself in a fig leaf saying, solemnly, after all, the FBI’s looking into it – so it wouldn’t be kosher for the Senate to trouble itself to investigate too.

Good thing Democrat’s didn’t take that approach during Watergate.

Hiding behind the FBI may sound good – but it’s just another dodge. Ask yourself: When it comes to ending corruption in state government who’s in charge? The Governor? The General Assembly? Or an FBI agent?  Here’s a clue: The FBI can’t pass a single ethics law in North Carolina.

 For three years – after every scandal – the Democrats have boasted that they’ve cleaned corruption once and for all. Well, now, their fig leaf is in tatters – and Governor Perdue, Senator Basnight and Speaker Hackney are proving, once again, that when it comes to a Democrat investigating another Democrat – forget-about-it.

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20

Since Phil Berger gave Democrats a way out on the U.S. Attorney appointment (see my blog below), I’ll give Republicans a tip.

 

But I’m not worried they’ll use it.

 

The teachers’ march on Governor Perdue last weekend brought back bad memories. During the recession in the early 80s, Governor Hunt had to freeze teacher pay. Teachers marched on the Mansion. Even worse, the NCAE dithered about whether to endorse Hunt in his race against Jesse Helms. Eventually, they did. But the damage was done.

 

Now, Public Policy Polling traces Governor Perdue’s drop in the polls to her cuts in teacher pay. And PPP also sees an opening for the GOP.

 

Here’s what Republicans should do to flummox everybody and give themselves a real chance in 2010 and 2012: Propose raising teacher salaries to $100,000.

 

Yep, that’s a lot of money. But do you want good teachers or not? What’s more important in today’s world?

 

I frankly have no idea what the cost is. I’m a political consultant, not a budget analyst. Just say: Cost be damned. We’ll cut out every bureaucrat in Raleigh and half the programs at the universities. We’ll even raise some taxes.

 

If Republicans ever combined their traditional stinginess with a genuinely progressive position on education, they’d be dangerous.

 

I don’t mind giving them the idea. Like I said, they’ll never do it.

 

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19

There are many pressing and important issues to blog about: scandals, investigations, recession, budget cuts, poll numbers and a wide-open Senate race.

But all that can wait. I rise to address the controversy raging on the Under the Dome blog about the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

 

Former Chief Justice Burley Mitchell has demeaned this high honor by recalling that his dog once got a Long Leaf Pine in the 1970s.

 

Far be it from me to dissent from Justice Mitchell, but he seems to suggest anybody could get a Long Leaf Pine back then.

 

Most assuredly not.

My recollection is hazy, but I am certain that not just any mutt off the street would have received this prestigious honor. It would have to be a good dog. Housebroken, certainly. And likely one who had done mankind a good deed.

 

But Justice Mitchell has a point. I always feel a twinge of conscience when obituaries extol how the deceased received the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, which is then described in terms such as “the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Governor of North Carolina.”

 

Well, not exactly.

 

I don’t know about more recently, but when I was Governor Hunt’s press secretary (1977-1984), we pretty much gave the things to anybody who asked. As long as there was no indictment pending.

 

We got a lot of requests. There were no criteria, no review process. Just ask and ye shall receive.

 

Some people apparently framed theirs.

 

It was an easy – and inexpensive – way to make folks feel good. How often do you get that from government these days?

 

 

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18

Phil Berger is on to something. But not what he thinks.

 

The Republican state Senate leader has unintentionally given Democrats a solution to their U.S. attorney dilemma: Appoint a special prosecutor.

 

Berger thought he had a good hit on AG Roy Cooper last week, saying the state should appoint a special prosecutor on the Easley case.

 

Since then, of course, the State Board of Elections started looking into the matter.

 

But maybe Senator Kay Hagan should take up Berger’s idea.

 

The media has been abuzz about what Hagan will ask the Obama administration to do. If incumbent U.S. Attorney George Holding is replaced, Republicans could charge that Democrats are protecting Easley – or even John Edwards (though poll results suggest there aren’t many Democrats eager to protect Edwards).

 

But Hagan could nominate a Democrat – even, say, Ripley Rand, whose dad Tony is close to Easley – and then ask Washington to appoint a special prosecutor on Easley and Edwards. Case closed.

 

Remember, too, that politics cuts two ways here.

 

Now, people I trust who know the incumbent U.S. Attorney, George Holding, say he’s not the type to pursue a political prosecution.

 

But the Bush administration already got caught with Karl Rove’s hands deep in the Justice Department cookie jar. If Holding is thinking about running for office down the road, he can’t afford to look like a North Carolina version of Ken Starr.

 

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18

Follow this:

The governor’s wife gets a job at NC State University. Then gets an 88% raise. She’s earning more than a professor at MIT.

Governor Easley’s buddy on States Board, McQueen Campbell, says he never once lifted a finger to help Mrs. Easley get her job.

State’s Provost, Larry Nielson, swears that’s true, too.

Chancellor James Oblinger tells the newspaper that when it came to Mrs. Easley’s hiring – no ‘improper influence’ was exerted.

The News & Observer starts digging into McQueen Campbell’s ties with Governor Easley, reports Campbell giving the governor free airplane flights, a smelly land deal and Campbell’s role in Mrs. Easley’s hiring resurfaces.

Under heat from the press, Campbell calls UNC President Erskine Bowles and does a mea culpa – confessing he did play a role in Mrs. Easley’s hiring, by talking to State Chancellor Oblinger.

Unfortunately for Campbell, this time he’s run into an honest man. Bowles tells Campbell to resign. And when the newspaper calls Bowles he doesn’t guild the lily.  He says he was shocked by what Campbell did.

After talking to Bowles The News & Observer hotfoots it straight to Chancellor Oblinger and asks, What did Campbell say when they talked about Mrs. Easley’s job? Oblinger says he can’t remember a thing.

Campbell, The Easley’s and State’s Provost pull up the drawbridge and stop talking to the News and Observer.

The FBI starts investigating Governor Easley’s free private plane flights, free automobiles and his land deal with Campbell – so can Mrs. Easley’s job be far behind?

It’s a three-ring circus. Right here in the middle of Raleigh.

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