RALEIGH, N.C. — A day after a federal judge sentenced a top aide of former Gov. Mike Easley to prison for tax evasion, questions remain about why he was the only person charged in a long-running probe involving the former governor's dealings with contributors while in office.
U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle even asked prosecutors during the sentencing of Ruffin Poole why others were not charged in the case and whether the former aide had been targeted in hopes of securing his cooperation against others.
"He truly was asking the question (that) I think the public was asking, which was 'Where's the beef?'" former federal prosecutor Kieran Shanahan said Wednesday.
Poole, 39, was sentenced to 12 months and a day in prison and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine after pleading guilty last year to income tax evasion.
Corruption cases are by their nature complex and winding affairs, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce said, and Poole's prison term is how this particular investigation turned out.
"You have to take every case as the trail leads you," Bruce said.
Shanahan said U.S. attorneys hoped that charging Poole would have helped them charge Easley.
"He was a deal maker," Shanahan said. "It looked like, if they were able to flip him, that he would open the floodgates."
But that didn't happen.
In November, Easley pleaded guilty to a felony campaign finance violation in state court. He received a $1,000 fine and no jail time. The same day, federal authorities dropped their investigation.
"If they had had a case, they would have brought it," Shanahan said.
Last year, a change in federal law made it more difficult to prove that bribes had taken place, and Poole did not cooperate, as promised under his plea deal.
"That means Ruffin Poole did not help the government make one case," Shanahan said.
Shanahan says that, considering Poole was originally facing 57 counts of federal corruption, pleading guilty to tax evasion was the best outcome.
Federal prosecutors have said he could have faced up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised probation.
"He got a great deal," Shanahan said.
The federal government had previously accused Poole of helping move along state permits for coastal housing projects while receiving gifts and a sizable investment return on two of those subdivisions.
Poole had initially pleaded not guilty, but later acknowledged in the plea in open court he didn't put the proceeds from his 30 percent return on the Cannonsgate development in Beaufort County on his 2005 tax return.
Prosecutors said in court that Poole helped grease the wheels for the permitting for Cannonsgate, which was being financed by Lanny Wilson, then a state Board of Transportation member who raised campaign money for Easley and current Gov. Bev Perdue.
Easley and his wife purchased a lot at Cannonsgate in late 2005 and received a $137,000 discount, according to documents. Wilson hasn't been charged with a crime but was prepared to testify at Poole's trial.
Poole's lawyer, Joe Zeszotarski, said his client has suffered severe anguish over the case, losing 20 pounds and worrying about what will happen to his wife and 2-year-old daughter when he reports to prison July 15.
"Obviously, his career path is gone," Zeszotarski said. "His job is gone. Everything he had planned for his future is gone."
Poole skyrocketed to the top of state government during the Easley administration as the governor's personal assistant and special counsel, involved in scores of political appointments.
The original January 2010 indictment against Poole described him as the "go-to guy" to get things done in Easley's office, with people calling him "the little governor" because of Easley's reliance on him to assist political supporters. He later joined the same law firm that Easley worked at after leaving office.
Zeszotarski pointed to Poole's long record of community service and leadership positions, stretching back to his adolescence, and the many family members and supporters who packed the courtroom Tuesday, as proof of his client's overall good character.
But Boyle said those factors cut both ways.
"With all those accomplishments comes a corresponding duty and trust," the judge said.