RALEIGH, N.C. — Ruffin Poole, once a top aide to former Gov. Mike Easley, pleaded guilty Monday afternoon to one count of federal tax evasion.
A federal grand jury had indicted Poole on 57 charges, including extortion, bribery and money laundering. The remaining charges will be dismissed as part of a plea agreement, which requires Poole to cooperate with federal authorities in an ongoing investigation.
The grand jury has since early last year been investigating Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.
"I trust that Mr. Poole's cooperation is going to be valuable, and I can promise that we will use the information. We will follow the evidence to wherever this investigation leads," U.S. Attorney George Holding said.
"It was Ruffin Poole's good fortune that he's going to be able to cooperate against the former governor," said Kieran Shanahan, a Raleigh lawyer and former federal prosecutor, who called the plea agreement "a great deal" for Poole.
"(Easley) is whom the government really wants. It's pretty obvious," Shanahan said.
Poole, 38, was Easley's legal counsel and trusted adviser during the governor's two terms in office.
He and his attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, declined to comment as they left the federal courthouse.
Easley attorney Joe Cheshire said in a statement that the former governor continues to support Poole and his family hopes the plea deal "will help them begin to move past this difficult time."
The indictments 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 showered Poole with gifts. He also 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 indictments.
Federal prosecutors said in court Monday that the tax evasion wasn't simply a lack of reporting income on a tax return. Rather, they said it was linked to criminal activity.
Wilmington developer Lanny Wilson allowed Poole to invest in the Cannonsgate development in Carteret County in 2005, and in an attempt to curry favor for permits and an appointment to a state board, Wilson quickly turned a $30,000 profit for Poole, prosecutors said.
Easley later purchased a waterfront lot in Cannonsgate at a below-market rate.
"This is a terrible day for Gov. Easley," political watchdog Joe Sinsheimer said. "He has to realize now that one of his most trusted and loyal aides has become a cooperating witness (for the government)."
Poole, who was scheduled to go on trial in two weeks on all 57 charges, faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the charge. A sentencing date hasn't been set.
Shanahan said Poole and Wilson, who was a major fundraiser for Easley, give prosecutors two live witnesses to go along with the paper trail they've been building for the past year.
"The more live bodies you have, the clearer the picture will be (for a jury)," he said.
Noting the Wilson also was a major fundraiser for Gov. Beverly Perdue, Sinsheimer said so-called "pay-to-play government" continues to flourish in the state.
"We're hopefully going to get to the bottom of all of this alleged activity," he said. "My guess is that we'll see this investigation spread in multiple directions, and we may, in fact, see indictments against a number of parties that come from this."
A spokesman for the Perdue campaign said the governor had no knowledge of any illegal activity when Wilson was raising money for her.