GREENSBORO, NC (WBTV) - Former North Carolina Senator Fletcher Hartsell, who represented Cabarrus County in the legislature for decades, pleaded guilty to two counts of filing false tax returns and one count of mail fraud.
The plea agreement was filed on Friday afternoon, five months after the first of two federal indictments were handed down against Hartsell.
He faced a total of 28 federal charges; the result of two different indictments from a grand jury.
The federal investigation into Hartsell began at the recommendation of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, which investigated the longtime senator for his use of campaign funds to pay personal expenses.
During the state board investigation, auditors found Hartsell used campaign funds to pay for personal expenses including lawn care, shoe repairs and haircuts.
In recommending state and federal investigators consider charges against Hartsell, members of the Board of Elections issued a strong rebuke of his campaign expenditures.
"There appears to me to have been the intent to obfuscate what was going on," board member Maja Kricker said in voting to recommend Hartsell's case be referred to criminal investigators. "My questions certainly were that the failure to use this campaign treasurer for making disbursements and having her review the signed reports, the fact that he's a lawyer. He-- again, as it has been pointed out, he must know about escrow and trust accounts."
State Board of Elections director Kim Westbrook Strach issued a brief statement following Hartsell's guilty plea Friday afternoon.
"Our agency remains committed to the important work of investigations and campaign finance compliance for more than 5,000 campaigns, PACs and political organizations," Strach said.
Law enforcement officials had similarly forceful statements in a release announcing Hartsell's plea today.
"Senator Fletcher Hartsell degraded our country's democratic process by spending campaign money as if it were from his own personal piggy bank," said John Strong, Special Agent-in-Charge of the FBI in North Carolina.
Hartsell will be sentenced by a federal judge in May. He could face decades in prison along with a fine and the forfeiture of his property and assets.
Local criminal defense attorney Brad Smith said Hartsell will likely receive a sentence significantly shorter than the maximum allowed under the sentencing guidelines.
"He's probably looking at somewhere in the range of two-to-three years," Smith said. "And he will probably be begging the court to do something that's called give him a variance."
A variance would mean a judge could sentence him to less time in prison than called for in the federal sentencing guidelines, a complex multi-factor formula used to determine an appropriate punishment for those convicted of a crime in federal court.