Local Politics

Ex-Easley aide remains silent in campaign finance probe

Posted December 17, 2009 5:48 a.m. EST
Updated December 17, 2009 7:11 p.m. EST

— A lawyer for former Gov. Mike Easley invoked his right Thursday not to testify to a state panel investigating allegations of campaign finance violations by Easley.

Ruffin Poole was Easley's lawyer during the governor's two terms in office. He now works at the same law firm as Easley.

In October, he convinced a judge to block a subpoena for his testimony during a State Board of Elections hearing into Easley's campaign finances. The state Court of Appeals later overturned the judge's ruling and ordered him to comply with the subpoena.

Poole's attorney, Joe Zeszotarski, said Thursday that the reasons Poole doesn't want to testify remain sealed by the court, so Poole intended to stand by the initial court order quashing the subpoena.

Larry Leake, the chairman of the elections board, said the Court of Appeals ruling clearly indicated the subpoena was lawful and that Poole should comply with it. If Poole refused to cooperate, Leake said, he would be cited for contempt and ordered to spend 30 days in jail.

"If the choice is to state the nature of the privilege or face a contempt citation, we'll state the nature of the privilege," Zeszotarski said.

Before Leake could ask any questions, however, Zeszotarski told the board that Poole would invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself and wouldn't testify.

Political watchdog Joe Sinsheimer said he believes Poole spoke volumes by saying nothing.

"I assume Mr. Poole knows what he did and did not do, and his refusal to answer questions from the board indicates that he may have been involved in nefarious activity," Sinsheimer said. "It's a sad day for North Carolina. There's nothing today positive for Mike Easley or Ruffin Poole."

Leake said he and other board members were disappointed Ruffin is maintaining his silence, noting his testimony was the last piece of the puzzle in their investigation.

"We obviously would have liked information we believe he had knowledge of," he said. "Unless there's more new information of some kind, it does end the board's inquiry."

The elections board in October ordered Easley's campaign committee to pay $100,000 for previously undisclosed campaign flights aboard donors' private planes. The board also asked prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against Easley. A decision is expected by February.

Witnesses during the five-day campaign finance hearing 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.

A federal grand jury, which has been investigating Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office, 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.

The grand jury is meeting this week, and at least one DENR manager was at the federal courthouse in Raleigh Thursday.

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 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 a contributor.