CABARRUS COUNTY, NC (WBTV) - North Carolina State Senator Fletcher Hartsell (R-Cabarrus) pleaded not guilty to a federal judge in Greensboro Thursday.
Hartsell was indicted Tuesday on 14 charges that included money laundering, mail fraud and wire fraud.
The indictment came more than a year after the North Carolina State Board of Elections voted unanimously to recommend Hartsell be investigated by state and federal prosecutor for his use of campaign funds.
In the indictment, federal prosecutors allege Hartsell used campaign money to pay for personal expenses, including paying off credit cards, haircuts and law care fees.
Hartsell also faces a three-count indictment issued by a Wake County grand jury in state court for filing false reports.
Hartsell, the state's longest serving senator, shuffled into the courtroom in shackles and handcuffs. A metal chain around his waist took the place of the belt he had to take off when he was taken into custody by US Marshals.
During the proceeding, Hartsell sat flanked by his two attorneys - Rick Glaser and Eric Frick of the law firm ParkerPoe - and stood when addressing the judge in a raspy voice that projected across the courtroom.
Hartsell was released on a $25,000 unsecured bond. As a condition of his release, he had to surrender his passport and must report to a probation officer. He must get permission before traveling outside of North Carolina and he cannot have contact with any potential witnesses or victims in this case, except for his wife.
Hartsell remained silent as he walked out of the courthouse Thursday afternoon, the shackles and handcuffs traded back in for his grey pinstripe suit jacket and red tie.
Glaser, his attorney, said his client wouldn't try this case in the media.
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A scheduling order entered during Thursday's hearing requires any plea deal to be reached and entered by November 7, 2016. Hartsell's trial is currently scheduled to start a week later, on November 14 in Greensboro.
Former federal prosecutor Steve Friedland, who is now a professor at the Elon University School of Law, said the nature and number of the federal charges filed against Hartsell show the federal government is taking this case very seriously.
"Make no mistake, this is a serious case and it's being treated as a serious case by the prosecutors," Friedland said. "Fourteen counts is a large number of counts. That could expose him to significant jail time depending on how the case goes."
Each of the 14 counts listed in the indictment against Hartsell carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.
Friedland estimated nearly 90 percent of federal cases end in a plea deal, something the professor said Hartsell is likely now discussing with his attorneys.
"When you look at everything in its totality, there's a lot of evidence that seems to be gathering against him. It's like a large storm. And the storm is coming and the dark clouds are very visible."