SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Easley Hearing Exposes State's Money-Raising Underbelly
It would be easy enough to believe that the lawyers at the front of the room had gathered to defend Mike Easley.
In reality, only one was there for that purpose.
The rest who sat at the tables opposite the five members of the State Board of Elections were defending something quite different -- a distorted system of campaign finance that concentrates power at the top and encourages political favoritism and illegality.
Easley sat through five hours of testimony before the board as it looked into his campaign finances. Mostly, they asked him about free airplane flights, home repairs that may or may not have been paid for from his campaign account, and an SUV provided to his son but paid for only after published accounts about the car.
A federal grand jury continues to chew over these and other issues.
To the Democrats in power in North Carolina, the quicker that Easley becomes old news the better. (Republicans, meanwhile, hope his dark shadow stretches over the political landscape well in 2010.) Many of them never really like Easley anyway. Most won't weep no matter his fate.
What some, including those lawyers representing the state Democratic Party, do care about is a law that allows both political parties to accept and then redistribute donor contributions of any size.
The result: North Carolina's $4,000 campaign contribution limit has become a farce. The party organizations largely serve as conduits used by legislative leaders and governors to shuffle money around in ways that wouldn't be possible without them.
Under such a system, more money flows through legislative leaders, further empowering them and weakening rank-and-file lawmakers. And under such a system, politicians with control over things like development permits, highway routes and government contracts can solicit $50,000 or $100,000 donations from wealthy individuals who often want something from government.
What the law doesn't allow, and what the lawyers fear, is a revelation that big-money donors to the party were able to decide which candidates benefit. An individual candidate, such as Easley, directing big donations through the party and back to pay his individual campaign expenses would also be illegal.
Documents revealed during the hearing suggest that the Easley campaign was able to direct donations. One Easley committee memo proposes the creation of a "large donor program," running expenses through the party and getting party officials to "play along."
Party officials deny it happened.
But does it matter?
I don't know of anyone who parts with $50,000 without an expectation of something in return.
As Easley said of his former friend and current nemesis, pilot and businessman McQueen Campbell, "He's not an imbecile."
Only an imbecile would use his airplane to fly a governor around for free without an expectation of a returned favor. Only an imbecile would hand out $50,000 checks to a politician or political party without an expectation of getting something back.
The problem that politicians face is that the public gets that.
Most people aren't imbeciles.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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