State News

'Little Governor' headed to big house

Posted May 17, 2011 4:00 a.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2011 7:13 p.m. EDT

— Once a top aide to former Gov. Mike Easley, Ruffin Poole was sentenced Tuesday to more than a year in prison for federal income tax evasion.

Poole, 39, was sentenced to 12 months and one day in prison and ordered to pay a $30,000 fine. He already has paid $16,629 in back taxes with penalties, authorities said.

"I'm deeply remorseful for my actions that bring me in front of this court. My mistakes will impact me for a lifetime," Poole told U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle during his sentencing.

Attorney Joe Zeszotarski said after the hearing that Poole has a long history of community leadership, but added that his client "engaged in serious conduct."

"He has suffered through this process," Zeszotarski said, noting that Poole lost his career and has dropped about 20 pounds since his plea.

The $30,000 Poole made on a coastal investment and didn't report in 2005 was uncovered during a two-year federal investigation into Easley's dealings with friends and contributors while in office.

Poole pleaded guilty more than a year ago, shortly before he was scheduled to go to trial on 57 public corruption-related charges, including extortion, bribery and money laundering.

Federal authorities alleged 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 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 federal indictments.

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 and his wife later purchased a waterfront lot in Cannonsgate at a below-market rate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce called the quick profit the "proceeds of criminal activity," noting Poole ultimately made $55,000 on the deal.

"In essence, it was a $55,000 bribe," Bruce told Boyle.

Wilson, a former state Board of Transportation member and a top fundraiser for Easley and Gov. Beverly Perdue, hasn't been charged in the case.

Boyle questioned why no one was charged with bribing Poole, and Bruce said some investigations never result in criminal charges.

"This investigation is over," he said.

As part of a plea agreement, Poole cooperated with the investigation of Easley's activities. The probe ended last November when the former governor entered an Alford plea in state court to a felony charge of certifying a false campaign report in 2006.

An Alford plea allows a defendant to plead guilty, while maintaining his innocence, because there is sufficient evidence to find him guilty.

Easley was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine, but he avoided any prison or probation time.

Poole, meanwhile, is scheduled report to federal prison on July 15. He has requested that he be allowed to serve his sentence in Bennettsville, S.C.

Zeszotarski said Poole worked about 500 hours on Habitat for Humanity houses since his plea.

"He didn't sit around and do nothing. He didn't feel sorry for himself," he said.