Easley hires high-profile defense attorney
Posted December 16, 2009 5:11 p.m. EST
Updated December 16, 2009 6:59 p.m. EST
RALEIGH, N.C. — As a federal grand jury and the State Board of Elections look into former Gov. Mike Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office, Easley on Wednesday added a well-known attorney to his defense team.
Easley hired Joe Cheshire, who is widely regarded as one of the state's top criminal defense lawyers, to handle any criminal charges he might face.
Cheshire's previous clients include David Evans, one of three Duke University lacrosse players accused of sexual assault; former Congressman Frank Ballance, who pleaded guilty to misusing state funding to a nonprofit foundation; and Ann Miller Kontz, who pleaded guilty to poisoning her husband. Cheshire also represents state Sen. R.C. Soles, D-Columbus, who is accused of shooting a man at his home in August.
The State Board of Elections in October turned the findings of its investigation into allegations of campaign finance violations by Easley over to prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be filed. A decision is expected by February.
During the five-day elections board hearing, longtime Easley supporter McQueen Campbell testified that he flew the former governor on private planes dozens of times and wasn't reimbursed. He also said Easley suggested that he bill the campaign for $11,000 in home repairs he paid for at Easley's private residence in Raleigh and list the expense as campaign travel.
Easley denied the allegations during five hours of testimony to the elections board.
On Thursday, the elections board will reopen the hearing to obtain testimony from former Easley aide Ruffin Poole.
Poole, who served as Easley's lawyer during the governor's two terms in office, convinced a judge to block a subpoena for his testimony during the October hearing. The state Court of Appeals later overturned the judge's ruling and ordered him to comply with the subpoena.
It's unclear whether he will testify Thursday or invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Watch LIVE coverage of the State Board of Elections hearing at 4 p.m. Thursday on WRAL.com.
"There's no question that, inside the governor's office, when the governor needed something done that was political or campaign-oriented or campaign finance-oriented, Ruffin Poole seemed to be the aide he turned to time and time again," political watchdog Joe Sinsheimer said.
During the October hearing, witnesses testified that Poole solicited a $50,000 donation from Charlotte developer Gary Allen for the state Democratic Party in 2004 at the same time that Allen was trying to get environmental permits approved for a Brunswick County development.
In his testimony, Allen denied that there was any link between the donation and the permitting process.
The federal grand jury, which has been meeting for months, also is interested in Allen's coastal developments.
Nine current and former managers with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources have been subpoenaed in recent months to testify before the grand jury. Investigators want to know about any payoffs or gifts Allen or his brother made to state regulators reviewing permits for four coastal developments.
"It looks like both state and federal investigations are looking at the nexus between campaign dollars, environmental permitting, the governor's office and any other favors that may have passed between all of these players," Sinsheimer said.
Easley and his wife bought a lot in one of Allen's developments – Cannonsgate in Carteret County – in 2005 at a below-market rate.
The grand jury also has looked into that transaction, as well as how Easley's 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 Campbell.