RALEIGH, N.C. — The laundry list of charges facing a top aide to former Gov. Mike Easley could mean that federal investigators are mounting a serious case against Easley, a former federal prosecutor and a former FBI agent said Friday.
A grand jury on Thursday indicted Ruffin Poole, who was Easley's top aide and legal counsel during the governor's two terms in office, on 51 counts of extortion, bribery, racketeering, mail fraud and money laundering.
Poole is expected to surrender to authorities next week.
The grand jury has spent almost a year investigating Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.
Easley isn't named in the indictment, but observers said the level of detail in the 64-page indictment show that investigators have interviewed witnesses extensively and might have made deals with some as they continue to work on the case.
"The U.S. Attorney's Office came down with a sledgehammer here," said Dan Boyce, a Raleigh lawyer who spent seven years as a federal prosecutor.
The indictment noted that Poole became known among Easley's top contributors as "Little Governor" because he was the person tasked with resolving any problems donors faced with state regulators and with lining up appointments for them to serve on state boards and commissions.
In exchange for his work, the donors gave Poole gifts like free concert tickets and trips, according to the indictment. One paid for Poole's bachelor's party in New Orleans, and another bought $600 in liquor for his wedding.
Poole also was allowed to invest in coastal real estate developments at the same time as he was working to secure permits for those projects from state regulators, according to the indictment.
The indictment alleges Poole never reported any of the gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms to the state Ethics Commission and used his family's construction firm to handle money he received through the real estate investments.
"As FBI street agents used to say, this is a heavy indictment. It's weighty. It's significant," said Frank Perry, who used to head the FBI office in Raleigh and has investigated other political corruption cases.
Boyce said he found it interesting that the grand jury didn't indict Poole on a conspiracy charge.
"That indicates this indictment is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. "They're trying to get Mr. Poole to admit wrongdoing, plead guilty and cooperate against other people."
Perry said the message to others involved in the case is that it's time to come clean.
"I think a lot of people are unsettled by it, by what the government knows, by the appearance of the level of cooperation by a number of people," he said.
Perry and Boyce said they believe more indictments are forthcoming, but Boyce noted that Poole's indictment doesn't suggest that Easley did anything wrong.
"It doesn't say anything in the indictment I saw that Ruffin Poole made the governor aware of what he was doing," Boyce said.
The grand jury has been looking into Easley's travel on donors' planes, his purchase of a waterfront lot in Carteret County at a below-market rate, how his wife landed a high-paying job at North Carolina State University, the sale of a Southport marina to a group that included some of Easley's political contributors and decisions made by the state Division of Motor Vehicles that might have benefited contributors.