U.S. Attorney Michael Easley Battling Domestic Terrorism, Drug Trafficking & Fraud

U.S. Attorney Michael Easley
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This past December, the electric distribution substation in Moore County, NC, was knocked out by gunfire, leaving 45,000 people without power. In November, a power substation in Jones County was shot at, affecting 12,000 residents.

“When we see things like attacks on the power grid, they can be indicative of folks who have radicalized,” said U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Michael Easley in a September interview. “We are very concerned about the rise of violent extremism.”

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security consider domestic terrorism a top threat to the United States. Easley has assigned a prosecutor to work with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to vet threats in the Eastern District’s 44 counties.

Michael F. Easley, Jr. is the first U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina in 30 years to have been born and raised in the district. Having spent his whole life in the area, Easley understands the issues affecting the region and is working to help solve them.

“Growing up in Eastern North Carolina gives me an understanding of the values and priorities of the people, which helps connect our office’s work to the most pressing issues in our community,” explained Easley. He said having that local knowledge was helpful as he assumed the reigns of the 125-person office in November 2021. The district includes four million people, the largest and most populous district in the state.

“We are only as good as the partnerships we build with local law enforcement. If federal prosecutors sit in the ivory tower and don’t get out into the community, know the community, and listen to the community, then we’re missing the chance to make a real impact.”

A Desire to Serve

The son of former NC Governor Mike Easley and First Lady Mary Easley, both former prosecutors, he was born in Southport, NC. Easley found a desire to serve early in life, working as a volunteer fireman in Orange County while he attended UNC as an undergrad. He earned his Juris Doctor, with honors, from UNC School of Law and gained experience as a law student prosecuting cases under Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby. Easley went on to a career in private practice, handling internal investigations and trial court work in state and federal courts.

Narcotics Trafficking and Violent Crime

Easley said cases involving violent crime, fentanyl trafficking, white-collar crime, and domestic terrorism are at the top of his priority list.

He is targeting large criminal networks that control drug trafficking and violence in the district. Easley said international cartels are fueling the supply of fentanyl, a drug responsible for record overdose deaths across the state. “We’re very concerned about Mexican cartels that are coordinated with American gangs to be their distribution network for fentanyl.”

To stem the flow of these deadly opioids, Easley said his office is running more organized crime and drug trafficking task force operations than ever before. “We are prioritizing the prosecution of cartel-linked gangs and drug traffickers pushing deadly fentanyl into our communities, as well as the gunrunners who arm them with the tools to kill,” said Easley.

This summer, Easley announced convictions arising from an international fentanyl trafficking ring with direct ties to the Sinaloa Cartel using NC as a hub for a national fentanyl supply chain. At a June press conference, he explained one defendant “was caught with enough deadly fentanyl to kill the entire population of Raleigh, Wilmington, New Bern, Goldsboro, and Fayetteville three times over.”

Easley is said to have a reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor but is quick to acknowledge that prosecution is not the only answer. “As it relates to crime, generally, Eastern North Carolina is a place of great promise, but it is also a place of haves and have-nots where far too many communities have lacked opportunity for far too long,” said Easley. “If we want to solve our issues, we can’t just be tough on crime. We also must get tough on the causes of crime – poverty, inequality, and a lack of good-paying jobs, well-funded schools, and mental health care.”

Fraud Fighter

Easley said he embraces an aggressive approach to prosecuting white-collar crimes and financial fraud. He beefed up the district’s economic crimes section and presided over a significant increase in financial cases, putting the office in what he described as “a more muscular enforcement posture” against white-collar criminals.

The office prosecuted a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme this year run by a former Morgan Stanley financial advisor now serving over seven years in federal prison.

His team is also prioritizing pursuing fraud by health care providers. It secured a 25-year sentence for a Raleigh doctor who billed Medicare $46 million for hundreds of sinus surgeries in which she re-used single-use surgical devices.

Easley sits on the U.S. Attorney General’s advisory subcommittee on white collar fraud, where he helps craft nationwide corporate criminal enforcement policy. “White collar criminals inflict unique trauma on their victims. If they dodge accountability, it undermines faith in our institutions and the rule of law,” said Easley. “We are pursuing white collar defendants like we would any other criminal, and securing sentences that reflect that.”

National Security and Domestic Terrorism

This summer, Easley’s office secured a trial victory against a man who taught bombmaking skills intended to kill and maim law enforcement and rallied against the government. Another case uncovered a racist plot by an Army soldier to “remove” minorities from parts of NC by any means necessary.

“There are many individuals who have a wide variety of bad ideas, very bad ideas, deplorable ideas at times, but not every one of them is actionable or is criminally prosecutable,” explained Easley. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be attuned to those who may want to motivate toward violence.”

Easley’s office is especially keeping tabs on this type of racially motivated violence. Last year, he launched the district’s first dedicated civil rights team in response to a national increase in hate incidents, most of which targeted Black Americans. The team has trained over 200 officers to fight federal hate crimes. Easley added he sees community members as key partners in the effort, too.

“Our nation faces many threats today, some new and some old. But we are most successful when the community stands up, speaks out, and trusts that we will make every effort to see justice done.”

Bob Friedman

Robert "Bob" Friedman is the publisher of Attorney at Law Magazine North Carolina Triangle. He contributes articles and interviews to each issue.

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