Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Of corruption and old-school ties

Of corruption and old-school ties
Close watchers of Gov. Mike Easley’s televised State of the State address last week may have noticed that among the legislators escorting the governor into the House chamber was state Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus, dean of the legislature in terms of longevity.
It was a momentarily startling -- and coincidental -- note, because Mike Easley first came to public notice as a corruption-busting prosecutor in Southeastern N.C. nearly a quarter-century ago, and R.C. Soles was among those caught up in a joint federal-state investigation called COLCOR – short for Columbus County Corruption.
Before that investigation was over, it snared several legislators, several local public officials, a state district court judge and a lieutenant governor. Soles was accused in federal court in an extortion deal, but he was found not guilty.
Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green was accused of accepting a bribe. He was tried in state court in Raleigh rather than in the judicial district that included Green’s home county. Then-prosecutor Easley called the Wake County district attorney and persuaded him that trial should be in Raleigh, where Green presided over the state Senate.
Says who? Says the current Wake District Attorney, Colon Willoughby, a friend of Easley’s who just last week handled the case against former Speaker Jim Black. Black filed an Alford plea on charges of bribing former Rep. Mike Decker to change his vote and keep Black in power in 2003, and of obstructing justice by not reporting contributions. The Alford plea allows Black to be sentenced just as if he had pleaded guilty, but also lets him say he didn’t do it.
In 1983, Willoughby was the acting Wake DA for two three-week periods when DA Randolph Riley was on short leaves of absence, and Willoughby signed the indictment of Green. But two special prosecutors were called in to handle the Green trial. Green was found not guilty probably because while he had clearly discussed accepting a bribe with an undercover agent named “Doc Ryan” and had taken a $2,000 check, he also gave the check back the next day. The jury didn’t think prosecutors had proven their case against Green.
Willoughby now jokes that he was "young and naive" when he agreed to then-DA Easley’s suggestion that the trial be held in Wake Superior Court. Willoughby later was elected Wake DA.
So it was an interesting contrast when Willoughby pursued the case against Black, who was Easley’s strongest legislative ally in the House for the past six years and who delivered Easley’s signature legislative victory, creating the state lottery. That’s also the issue that exposed some of Black’s shenanigans and contributed mightily to his downfall.
Easley and Willoughby remain allies. A couple of years ago when there was an election dispute between candidates over who won the election for Superintendent of Public Instruction, Easley tapped Patricia Willoughby to fill the job until the election was resolved.
She is Colon Willoughby’s spouse, a member of the state Board of Education and a professor at Meredith College in Raleigh – old school ties.


James said...

I appreciate you elucidating these connections from 'old-school' politics in North Carolina. It was particularly interesting to read given that Riley, who took a leave of absence as DA, did so in large part because of my birth. I have just begun reading into my history in earnest and would like to know more about all that business from the 80s.

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