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Who is Michael Easley Jr.? Former governor’s son in line to be U.S. attorney.
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Who is Michael Easley Jr.? Former governor’s son in line to be U.S. attorney.

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The new top prosecutor for what may be the most important of North Carolina’s three federal districts will likely be Michael Easley Jr., the son of the former governor.

President Joe Biden nominated Easley as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina on Tuesday. The choice immediately received praise from the state’s two U.S. senators, Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, indicating bipartisan support in the Senate — where Easley would have to be officially confirmed before he can take office.

Tillis said that should not be difficult for either Easley or the two women Biden nominated to be the top prosecutors in North Carolina’s other two federal court districts: Dena King in the state’s western district, which includes Charlotte, and Sandra Hairston in the middle district, which includes Durham and the Triad.

“All three are impressive and qualified individuals who will serve North Carolina well, and I want to thank the White House for working with us and making these nominations,” Tillis said in a press release. “As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I look forward to supporting them and getting them confirmed by the Senate.”

King and Hairston, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, would be the first Black women to serve as the top prosecutors in either of those districts. Both have worked their way up through the districts as career prosecutors.

Who is Michael Easley Jr?

A 2010 graduate of UNC Law School, Easley has spent his legal career at the Raleigh offices of international law firm McGuireWoods. He works on both civil and criminal litigation involving the finance industry, in addition to other matters.

He’s also the son of Michael Easley Sr., the popular-yet-controversial Democrat who served first as attorney general, helping negotiate a national settlement with tobacco companies, then as governor from 2001 to 2009, where he championed the creation of the lottery. He would later become a felon, too, in a plea deal over a campaign finance violation.

Through a law firm spokesman the younger Easley declined an interview request Tuesday, citing the ongoing Senate confirmation, but said in a written statement: “I am very grateful to be nominated and look forward to the confirmation process.”

His law firm biography shows he has spent the last decade working with businesses facing complex financial or technological problems, ranging from contract disputes to securities fraud and environmental violations.

“I think the president has made a great decision,” said Colon Willoughby, the longtime Wake County district attorney who now works at McGuireWoods alongside Easley.

Easley’s bio says he’s been involved in some political cases around issues like immigration and keeping polling places open on college campuses, plus has done pro bono criminal defense work in federal court.

He also had a brief stint as a prosecutor before: In 2009, when Willoughby was Wake County’s elected prosecutor and Easley was a student at UNC Law, he hired Easley as an intern and was impressed.

“I’ve known Michael his whole life, but he did a great job as an intern,” Willoughby said. “Tried a number of cases successfully, and even tried a couple jury trials while he was still in law school.”

After Willoughby stepped down in 2014 and went into private practice, they found themselves again working together, on cases at McGuireWoods.

Eastern district tackles drugs, corruption

It was the eastern district — which the younger Easley will now likely take over — where the elder Easley was investigated by the FBI and then-U.S. Attorney George Holding, a Republican who would later represent Raleigh in Congress.

The federal investigation into the elder Easley’s actions as governor was dropped without any charges, after his plea in state court on a campaign finance violation related to a helicopter ride he took with a political supporter. Easley took what’s known as an Alford plea, in which he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that enough evidence existed to potentially convict him if the case had gone to trial.

But Holding did win a conviction of Easley aide Ruffin Poole, who was sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty in a corruption case linked to environmental permitting for a coastal real estate developer. Holding also led the prosecution of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, another powerful Democrat, whose charges were ultimately dismissed.

The eastern district handles many of the political corruption and campaign finance cases in North Carolina, since it covers the capital city and its state government offices.

The prosecutors in the district — which stretches from Raleigh southeast to Fayetteville and Wilmington, and northeast to the Outer Banks — also handle big cases like drug and weapons smuggling, since the district contains the state’s two ports as well as Interstate 95, a major drug corridor along the East Coast.

“It’s a big job,” Willoughby said.

Like Tillis, Burr expressed confidence in Easley — as well as King and Hairston — to handle the state’s federal criminal matters in the coming years. The two senators said they made a list of potential nominees that they sent to Biden, which he then picked from.

“I’m pleased to see the White House take our recommendations,” Burr said in a press release.

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