As officers with extraordinary latitude and immense authority within their districts, U.S. Attorneys have the ability to implement ambitious reforms to the federal legal landscape in a direct and immediate fashion. U.S. Attorneys also have incredible freedom to reorient the undercurrent priorities of the federal legal system and to center historically under prosecuted, but systemic nonetheless, crimes such as corporate and white collar malfeasance. Because of the incredible potential of the position, it is critical that these offices are prioritized in Biden’s staffing of the federal bureaucracy. However, as we have examined previously, the Biden administration has proven remarkably slow in its nominations process for U.S. Attorneys positions, seemingly in part due to an unwillingness to decisively abandon deference to a racist Senate decorum procedure known as blue slips.
In short, blue slips embed veto power in home state Senators as part of the consultation process for each district position. While local consultation can help staff such localized federal positions effectively, Senate seditionists and other bad-faith Republican actors have weaponized the process to secure an almost dictatorial control over the legal landscape of almost half the country. This system has led to a stagnation in nominations, which has in turn inhibited progressive change in prosecution, created an inequitable and inconsistent implementation of Biden’s reform agenda and otherwise obstructed Biden’s reform aspirations across government. For outstanding nominations Biden and the Senate majority can and must reject the blue slips process in order to speed the rate of nominations to these crucial positions across the government. Where Biden has already installed U.S. Attorneys in consultation with home state Republican senators – and without working with other local actors – he must reflect on whether these figures are fit to continue serving and to carry out his justice reform vision.
For example, Michael Easley Jr. was nominated to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina by President Biden, and confirmed to the position by the Senate in November of 2021. He was supported throughout his nomination process by both North Carolina Senators, the Republicans Richard Burr and Thom Tillis. Tillis is a feckless political agent who has continuously gone to great lengths to defend Donald Trump and members of the sedition caucus. Burr, meanwhile, has been at the center of a notorious insider trading scandal after he dumped as much as $1.7 million in stock in 2020 as Senators began to be briefed on the potential impacts of the then-emerging coronavirus emergency. Given these legacies, anyone who courted their support should be met with extraordinary skepticism.
Furthermore, a review of Easley’s professional history suggests that he lacks any discernible commitment to President Biden’s priorities. Easley should face additional scrutiny from Biden and his team to ensure that the federal legal landscape fully aligns with the President’s stated goals for criminal justice reform, and renewed accountability for corporate wrongdoers. Easley in particular is a useful example of the concern merited by such candidates, as a BigLaw revolver with a long-running record of defending corporations with massively abusive environmental, labor, and business practices.
Michael Easley Jr.
From 2010 to 2021, Easley worked for McGuireWoods LLP, a BigLaw firm with a massive political footprint in North Carolina. Easley’s father, former North Carolina governor Michael Easley Sr. – was set to begin work at the firm in 2010 as well, but lost his law license due to a conviction for campaign finance violations. The firm also boasts the staffing of another former N.C. Governor, Jim Martin. Former N.C. state Supreme Court Judge Cheri Beasley also worked at the firm, lending it a formidable roster of current and former actors in the state who staff the firm’s lobbying and litigation teams.
Easley worked in the internal investigations and trial court section of the firm. In his required financial disclosure forms he named ten former clients with whom he worked while at McGuireWoods. At least seven of these clients have incredibly fraught environmental and labor records, and have further pushed the bounds of moral and legal conduct, at the expense of the health and safety of the general public.
One of Easley’s most well-known clients, Wells Fargo, has been exposed for a slate of scandals over the past several years, including creating and charging consumers for fake credit card, insurance, and checking accounts, engaging in racketeering on foreclosed homes, falsely padding auto insurance rates, and more. In North Carolina, the state in which Easley now represents the federal interests of the public, Wells opened as many as 38,000 false accounts, effectively endangering the financial health of thousands of North Carolinian families, and those across the country, to arbitrarily pad its bottom line. Easley’s association with Wells is made particularly fraught when contrasted with North Carolina’s A.G. Josh Stein’s record on the subject. Instead of pandering to corporate wrongdoing, Stein helped to hold Wells to account for its actions via his, in collaboration with other state A.G.’s, pursuit of a $575 million settlement of which Stein secured $15,174,791 in restitution for the people of North Carolina.
Another of Easley’s clients, DuPont de Nemours LLP, is a chemical manufacturing company that has been the decades-long leading U.S. producer of PFAS chemicals. PFAS chemicals, frequently referenced as “forever chemicals,” are highly toxic fluorinated chemicals that have devastating consequences for the human body and the surrounding environment, and which have been shown to be almost impossible to break down. DuPont has known, and lied, about the health risks of the chemicals since at least the mid 1960s, and PFAS chemicals are now in the drinking water of millions and the bodies of almost every American. Dupont is so toxically pollutive that the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) listed DuPont as #67 on their 2021 Air Polluters Index and #47 on their 2021 Water Polluters index. According to Good Jobs First’s violation tracker, DuPont has been hit with over $1,118,039,955 in penalties since 2000, with the biggest proportion of these related to environmental violations. Easley also listed DuPont’s agricultural chemicals business, Corteva, amongst his clients. Corteva, of course, has already violated the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, despite only having been officially founded in 2019.
Easley also recently worked for Dominion Energy, an energy conglomerate with additional ties to Interior Deputy Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, whose portfolio is entrenched in gas and coal. The Sierra Club has detailed how “Dominion’s fracked gas pipelines, toxic coal ash dumps, and corrosive influence on politics are jeopardizing the health of people, communities, and landscapes.” Furthermore, Dominion has actively harmed the public and effectively stolen over a billion dollars from Virginia consumers since 2015 as a result of its price gouging practices, done under the greenwashed guise of “renewable energy” investments.
Boeing is another Easley client and defense industrial manufacturing giant which PERI listed as #1 on their 2021 Air Polluter index and #81 on their Water Polluters index. Boeing has, of course, also earned over $3,917,009,024 in fines since 2000, defrauded the federal government while flouting basic safety standards, consistently engaged in extensive anti-union conduct, and killed 346 people in avoidable crashes.
Rounding out the concerning environmental records of Easley’s now former clientele is Smithfield Foods, which boasts a decades-long corporate tradition of environmental, animal, and labor abuse. Smithfield is the world’s largest pork producer, and is responsible for fatal amounts of pollution in North Carolina resulting from the hog farms and slaughterhouses that have sent millions of gallons of waste into the state’s ecosystem each year. In addition to creating one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the country and practicing blatant animal cruelty, Smithfield colluded with Dominion to create a pipeline to monetize the ecological nightmare that is hog waste under the guise of “green energy,” and to further entrench the industry’s patently unsustainable infrastructure in the state and national economy. To do this, Smithfield and Dominion created another company – Align RNG (another Easley client) – to profiteer off their own ecological destruction at the expense of the health and physical wellbeing of North Carolinians and others in surrounding states.
His disclosed clients list indicates a person who has continuously defended, not to mention profited from, corporate greed and extraordinary environmental violence over the safety of the public. For his work on behalf of these corporations, Easley raked in an impressive $498,750 in salary and bonuses through his partner position, making his complicity in his clients’ crimes an extraordinarily lucrative affair.
Easley’s Investments Are Also A Cause For Concern
Not only is Easley financially steeped in corporate malfeasance by virtue of his record in private practice, but also as a result of his personal financial investments. Easley’s investments reflect incredible personal interest in some of the nation’s worst offenders in terms of the environment, monopolistic behavior, and abusive labor practices, presenting a fraught vision of his commitment to holding many of these same corporate actors to account by virtue of his prosecutorial authority. Easley is, for example, personally invested in Big Oil conglomerates and major international polluters, Conocophillips, Phillips 66, Shell, and Chevron. He is also invested in some of the country’s largest tech conglomerates, including Facebook and Apple, which only further clouds his commitment to the public interest insofar as cracking down on the notorious bad faith conduct of these corporations. U.S. Attorneys have the potential to be partners in antitrust litigation and in finally fully prosecuting environmental crimes, but Easley’s personal investments in some of the country’s biggest corporate offenders, in these and other realms, intrinsically complicates public faith in his commitment to holding these, and adjacent, actors accountable to the public harms for which they are responsible.
Given his position, and the potential scope of the cases which may come before him, existing standards that bar government officials from being directly involved in matters in which they have a financial interest are not enough to safeguard public trust in Easley’s work. Easley should immediately divest from individual stocks, including his stakes in the companies named above, and transfer his holdings to broadly held investment funds so as to avoid even the appearance of impropriety in future cases. Congress is currently considering codifying such a ban on stock ownership for its members and senior officials in the executive branch. Regardless of the outcome of that debate, however, it is incumbent on Easley to take action to resolve the appearance of a conflict between his financial holdings and his current and upcoming work.
Biden Must Reject Revolvers
Easley’s revolving door record, and personal financial entrenchments, reveals a longstanding commitment to the interests of a select privileged few, and a complicity in the harm of the many, often at the material expense of the people of his state. The Biden Administration, contrastingly, has pledged its commitment to a new, progressive, vision for the federal legal landscape, something which each U.S. Attorney has the potential to implement in a robust and direct manner. Particularly, U.S. Attorneys have an immense opportunity to implement a fundamental re-orientation of criminal legal resources away from low-level crime and towards the systemic violations committed continuously at the corporate level across the country.
Easley is a figure whose entire career has been built on the defense of such actions. It is difficult to believe that the Biden administration would have chosen someone so diametrically opposed to its stated priorities if it had selected a candidate independent of Sens. Tillis and Burr’s input. Adherence to a racist (and already broken) bit of Senate decorum, however, is a poor excuse for entrenching a corrosive status quo. President Biden must immediately revisit this selection and consider whether Easley will advance or undermine his promises to the American people.