Were Mike Easley’s public service ads political? Of course they were. But can Richard Vinroot get the voters to care?

Easley, as attorney general, starred for three years in a series of TV and radio advertising campaigns warning the public about telemarketing frauds and “predatory lenders”–finance companies that lure borrowers into mortgage loans on lousy terms with hidden fees. Easley paid for the campaigns, almost $1 million worth, out of court “settlements” his office exacted from suspected wrongdoers. Under the N.C. Constitution, fines collected by the state are supposed to be given to the public schools, avoiding conflicts of interest that might arise if state agencies had to convict people to stay in business. But, Easley’s office insists, settlements aren’t fines, and the ad campaigns weren’t political. Yes, the warnings about predatory lenders were targeted to low-income, and African American, markets, but that was because they’re most likely victimized by bad loans. Easley’s Democratic primary opponent, Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker, cried foul when he found out how popular Easley’d gotten with black voters. Result: Easley was nicked in a few newspaper stories then went on to bury Wicker.

But if Wicker couldn’t make the issue stick against Easley, Vinroot obviously thinks he can, and his campaign is pounding away at it almost every day. If the ads weren’t political, Vinroot campaign manager Chris Neely says, why did the attorney general’s office have to pay for them? Stations run public service ads for free. In fact, Easley’s staff negotiated contracts that called for every paid ad to be matched by a free one, meaning he may have gotten “way more than $1 million” worth of publicity, Neely insists. That’s as much as some major candidates spend in a whole statewide campaign.

And if the ads weren’t political, Vinroot’s campaign asks, why were payments made for sound recordings and printing to firms in Philadelphia and Chicago. Philadelphia is where Saul Shorr, who does the Easley campaign’s media, is based. The sound studio is a couple of blocks from Shorr’s office. Don Carrington, a researcher with the conservative John Locke Foundation, stumbled across the studio’s name as he was poring over state controller records in connection with a story he wrote for the Locke magazine this summer about another subject. Carrington called the studio and asked who placed the work. Shorr and Associates, he was told.

Ka-ching. The Chicago firm is used by another Easley campaign consultant, The Strategy Group, according to The Charlotte Observer. It printed 50,000 four-color brochures headlined, “Beware of Home Equity Scams: A Consumer Alert from North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley,” featuring pictures and mentions of, yes, Mike Easley.

Vinroot’s attacks on the Easley ads might register more with voters if the GOP candidate himself were advocating cleaning up political campaigns. He isn’t, but that isn’t his point. Rather, his point is to rip Easley’s integrity by comparing it with Bill Clinton’s. Easley “looked into the camera and he didn’t tell the truth” about the ads, he says. Maybe the ads were legal, but they were wrong. Vinroot says “it may depend on what your definition of is, is.”