Local Politics

Former Easley aide indicted

Posted January 21, 2010 4:22 p.m. EST
Updated January 22, 2010 12:42 p.m. EST

— A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted the lawyer for former Gov. Mike Easley on a slew of charges, including extortion, bribery and money laundering.

The grand jury has in recent months been investigating Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.

A also accuses Ruffin Poole, who was Easley's top aide and legal counsel during the governor's two terms in office, of racketeering and mail fraud and includes a notice that federal prosecutors plan to seize any property linked to criminal activity.

"Anyone who serves in government has the trust of the people they represent, and we cannot afford to let that trust be corrupted," Owen Harris, the special agent-in-charge of the North Carolina office of the FBI, said in a statement Thursday.

Easley isn't named in the indictment, and his lawyer said late Thursday that the former governor had no knowledge of any wrongdoing by his one-time aide.

“While Governor Easley has no knowledge of the conduct that makes up the criminal allegations (in the indictment), he has faith in Ruffin Poole and finds it hard to believe that he would ever intentionally violate the law,” attorney Joe Cheshire said in a statement. “Ruffin Poole, like anyone else charged with a crime, deserves the presumption of innocence, not a rush to judgment.”

The 64-page indictment chronicles Poole's rapid rise from the state Attorney General's Office to become Easley's "go-to guy" who would help political supporters with any problems they faced with state regulators and line up appointments for them to state boards and commissions.

Easley relied so much on Poole for such work, the indictment notes, that political supporters called Poole "Little Governor."

The supporters rained gifts on Poole, from vacations in Costa Rica to a bachelor's party in New Orleans, according to the indictment. The former chairman of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, Doug Fox, also purchased $600 worth of liquor at a South Carolina naval base for Poole's 2005 wedding in Staunton, Va., the indictment states.

The indictment alleges Poole never reported any of the gifts on his annual financial disclosure forms to the state Ethics Commission.

During a State Board of Elections hearing in October into allegations of campaign finance violations by the Easley campaign, witnesses likewise characterized Poole as the man to see in the governor's office to resolve problems.

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 permits were approved shortly after the donation was made, he said.

Poole was called as a witness during the hearing, but he convinced a Superior Court judge to block the subpoena on the grounds that his testimony could violate attorney-client privilege. The state Court of Appeals later overturned the judge's ruling and ordered him to comply with the subpoena.

He finally appeared before the elections board in December but invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify.

The coastal developments discussed during the elections board hearing were alluded to in the indictment, with Allen and his brother referred to as "the Charlotte developers" and Lanny Wilson, who resigned Thursday from the state Board of Transportation, referred to as "the Wilmington financier."

Wilson allowed Poole to invest $100,000 in Cannonsgate, a gated community in Carteret County that the Allens developed, in 2005, according to the indictment, and Poole made a $30,000 profit within four months.

Poole helped the developers obtain the needed permits to dredge a site for a marina, according to the indictment.

Easley later purchased a waterfront lot in Cannonsgate at a below-market price.

In 2006, Poole invested another $100,000 in Summerhouse at Everett Bay, an Onslow County development by the Allen brothers, according to the indictment. He worked with state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to get approval for a boat dock at the development, the indictment states.

Payments Poole received from his real estate investments were routed through his family's construction company, according to the indictment.

The grand jury also has been looking into Easley's travel on donors' planes, 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.

The elections board 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, and a decision is expected by February.