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On Thanksgiving, some food, football and talk of Easley

RALEIGH — I suspect a lot of Thanksgiving Day family get-togethers in North Carolina were a lot like mine.

Good food, smiles for camera-toting relatives and discussions of weather, football and Mike Easley.

Plenty of North Carolinians are understandably confused about the outcome in Easley’s criminal case. I ran into more than a few folks on Turkey Day who believe the former governor got off light with his plea to a low-level felony that resulted in a $1,000 fine and no prison time.

Professional and amateur pundits weren’t bashful about offering up an opinion as to why the case ended, in the words of Easley lawyer Joe Cheshire, “in a whimper” rather than with a bang.

News reports focused on a vague 1973 state law that allows for some level of immunity from prosecution when someone is subpoenaed and testifies before the state Board of Elections, as Easley had done last winter.

Legal experts seem divided about what kinds of protections the law really provides and when it actually applies. State prosecutor Bill Kenerly did say that he considered the law as he examined the case against Easley.

Any immunity, though, wouldn’t have applied to federal charges that might have been brought against the former governor.

But as previously pointed out in this column, any federal case against Easley was weakened by a U.S. Supreme Court decision earlier this year throwing out the federal honest services fraud law that had been used successfully to prosecute political corruption cases around the country.

Some people were struck not just by the result but by the words of Kenerly and Judge Osmond Smith. Neither chastised Easley. Kenerly went so far as to say that he had seen no evidence showing that the former governor had used campaign money for noncampaign purposes.

I’m not sure that Smith or Kenerly would appreciate the conclusions reached by a few members of the public who pay their salaries. “Sweetheart deal” was among the nicer descriptions that I heard over the past few days.

Some of the more interesting comments came from a relative by marriage who I’ll refer to as “Bob.” After all, that’s actually his name.

Bob would be in the camp that sees most of Easley’s actions as politics as usual. What’s unusual, in his mind, is the aggressiveness of the news media, particularly The News & Observer of Raleigh, in ferreting out the corruption.

He sees that aggressive reporting as a good thing but also has some sympathy for politicians who still thought old rules applied. “I think you need to say, ‘From this point forward, no, you’re in trouble. But going back, you’re OK,’” he said over a moist piece of chocolate cake.

Bob’s take doesn’t necessarily consider one thing that has changed in politics, the campaign dollars. The obscene amounts involved today can make a misstep that once seemed bad form look a lot more like a crime.

Still, thoughts similar to Bob’s could have played a role with those who decided Mike Easley’s fate.

Only they know.

Scott Mooneyham writes about North Carolina politics for the Capitol Press Association.

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