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Senator acknowledges federal probes of Easley, Edwards

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Requests U.S. Attorney continue to serve during investigation

By Caroline Curran, Reporter

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan has asked President Barack Obama to allow U.S. Attorney George Holding to remain in office to continue with the federal investigation of two former North Carolina officials.

In doing so, Hagan confirmed the federal probe of former Gov. Mike Easley and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards.

“Back in March, I announced the formation of a statewide review panel to help screen federal nominees of whom all North Carolinians, regardless of their political affiliation, will be proud,” Hagan said.

“To uphold that promise, I called the White House yesterday to inform them of my recommendation that President Obama not replace Mr. Holding until the ongoing investigations into John Edwards and Mike Easley are completed. It is of the utmost importance to me, as well as to the people of North Carolina, that we ensure this process is carried out as transparently and honestly as possible.”

Robin Zier, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, would not comment on the investigations. The U.S. Attorney’s Office does not confirm an investigation until charges are filed.

According to court records, no charges were filed by press time Tuesday.

Holding has served as U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s Eastern District since September 2006, when he was appointed by then-President George W. Bush.

While Holding’s four-year term runs until September 2010, U.S. Attorneys serve at the discretion of the president.

Typically, Zier said, presidents appoint U.S. Attorneys within their own political parties.

“It’s not a hard and fast rule,” she said of political affiliation, “Whatever the president is, that’s usually what [the political party] is.”

Before being appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, Holding served as first assistant U.S. Attorney from March 2002 until September 2006. Holding has also worked in private law practices, as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle and as legislative counsel to former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms.

Holding has worked several corruption cases during his time as U.S. Attorney, including former Brunswick County Sheriff Ronald Hewett, who is now serving 16 months in federal prison for an obstruction of justice charge.

“Today has been a dark day for Brunswick County,” Holding said in a press conference after Hewett’s October sentencing. “Former sheriff Hewett held a public trust as a law enforcement officer and as an elected official. He violated that trust by using his office for personal benefit,” Holding said.

“When law enforcement officials and the federal grand jury began to investigate claims Hewett was using the sheriff’s office for his personal benefit and other allegations, “he unlawfully obstructed that investigation,” Holding said.

Like Holding, Easley is no stranger to federal corruption investigations.

Before he was governor, Easley was the district attorney for the 13th prosecutorial district, which includes Brunswick, Columbus and Bladen counties.

Elected in 1982, Easley served as district attorney until 1992, when he was elected the North Carolina Attorney General. During his tenure as Brunswick County District Attorney, Easley, one of the youngest district attorney’s in the state, was named among USA Today’s top “drug busters.”

But almost immediately after taking office, Easley was involved with a federal investigation. When the federal drug-smuggling case known as Operation Gateway exploded in 1983, Easley assisted U.S. Attorney Samuel Currin, FBI, SBI and DEA agents in the investigation.

Operation Gateway spanned more than two years, and more than a dozen people were convicted or pleaded guilty for their roles in the smuggling operation.

Operation Gateway targeted a high-powered drug smuggling ring, which included former Brunswick County Sheriff Herman Strong and former Shallotte Police Chief Hoyal Varnum Jr. Both Strong and Varnam went to federal prison.

Currin praised the efforts of the young, newly elected Easley and his predecessor Lee Greer for their roles in the federal investigation.

According to the Brunswick County Tax Department, Easley still owns a $1.1 million riverfront home in Southport.