Gov. Mike Easley usually had good political instincts to lean on during his eight years as governor, but one of his signal failings was coming clean with the public.
That's not exactly news. Easley resisted disclosing how and when he traveled, even on weekend forays to his river home in Southport. And he resisted adopting an open e-mail policy until his final day.
But News & Observer reporter Andrew Curliss has given readers a more intimate view of Easley's penchant for secrecy in his personal dealings, and it paints a troubling picture. Easley and NASCAR magnate Rick Hendrick had a relationship that appears to have benefited both the car dealer and the former governor.
For Easley, there were trips, cars and rubbing shoulders with the giants of NASCAR that make one wonder: What was the governor thinking? Consider:
The governor and a state trooper flew aboard a Hendrick jet to Hendrick's Florida home, yet the State Highway Patrol denied requests until recently for a copy of the trooper's expense record under the state open records law. Easley never disclosed on state ethics forms that he had accepted the March 2008 trip to Florida.
Mary Easley, the former governor's spouse, has been driving a $30,000 Honda Accord that belongs to one of Hendrick's dealerships since a couple of days before Easley left office. The Easleys' son, Michael, has been driving a GMC Yukon SUV that is registered to another car dealership in Robeson County.
Easley declined to be interviewed about these arrangements, saying his wife is just waiting for her new car to come in. He says he has bought the SUV for his son. DMV records don't show that.
For Hendrick, the relationship appears to have been a good investment:
During Easley's time in office, he proposed and signed sales tax breaks on fuel for corporate jets used to travel to NASCAR races and a tax break on car parts and accessories for motorsports teams.
The governor appeared at a 2003 press conference to promote the N.C. Motorsports Association, of which Hendrick became vice-chairman. The association later received $140,000 in grants from two state-funded agencies.
What's going on? A former prosecutor and attorney general who made his reputation cleaning up corruption, Easley has forgotten a simple precept: Public officials must avoid the appearance of conflicts of interests and reassure the people that all their dealings are open and above board. On this simple test of transparency, Mike Easley gets an F.