News: CJ Exclusives

Top Easley Aide Gets One-Year Prison Term

Judge appears dissatisfied with plea deal involving ‘little governor’ Poole

Ruffin Poole, former Gov. Mike Easley’s closest aide, was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison, given two years’ probation, and fined $30,000 for accepting what the judge called a “bribe” Poole received for facilitating development permits involving real-estate deals on the North Carolina coast.

Poole, known as the “little governor” for his intimate access to Easley, received his sentence from U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle at the federal courthouse in Raleigh Tuesday afternoon. Federal prosecutors said Poole’s sentence closes the investigation of Easley, who entered a guilty plea last fall for failing to file an accurate campaign report related to an unreported free flight he received from a donor. Easley, who paid a $1,000 fine, became the first North Carolina governor to be convicted of a felony for activities related to his actions in office.

In January 2010, prosecutors indicted Poole on 51 corruption counts, including bribery, money laundering, racketeering, and monetary transactions involving property obtained in a criminal enterprise. Two months later, six more charges were added — three additional racketeering offenses and three involving income-tax evasion. Poole pleaded not guilty to all charges. Then in April 2010, Poole reversed course, pleading guilty to a single income-tax evasion charge; in exchange the other charges were dropped on the condition that he would cooperate with prosecutors.

“I am sorry to be standing in front of you,” Poole said Tuesday as he addressed the court, “and I am deeply remorseful for my actions. My mistakes will impact me for a lifetime.”

Poole’s punishment may have seemed light, as the maximum sentence for tax evasion of this magnitude is five years in jail and a $250,000 fine. But in this instance, the government determined that Poole’s offense and other circumstances led to a sentencing guideline of between 12 months and 18 months in prison and a fine ranging between $3,000 and $30,000. The defense did not object.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Boyle appeared dissatisfied with the resolution of the probe. When defense attorney Joseph Zeszotarski requested leniency from the court because of Poole’s “commitment to the community,” Boyle said that commitment was “a two-edged sword. … His accomplishments have a corresponding duty and trust.” When Zeszotarski mentioned that Poole did not “sit around … and feel sorry for himself” after entering his guilty plea and spent more than 500 hours volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Boyle countered that “most folks who are awaiting sentencing are in custody” and do not have the opportunity to volunteer.

Nor did the judge spare prosecutors. Boyle asked why charges that focused on corruption and public integrity evolved into a simple failure to pay income taxes. He said that Poole appeared to have expedited four coastal real-estate deals through environmental regulatory agencies: Oyster Harbor (Brunswick County), Cannonsgate (Carteret County), Summer House (Onslow County), and Cutter Bay (Pamlico County). “It is not a secret who these other people are,” he said, mentioning “the Allens, Wilson, Campbell.”

The properties were developed by Randy and Gary Allen and financed in part by Lanny Wilson, all prominent Democratic Party donors and close associates of Easley. McQueen Campbell, a Raleigh businessman appointed by Easley to the Board of Trustees of N.C. State University, brokered a sweetheart transaction for Easley to buy a lot at Cannonsgate and flew the governor for free without reporting the flights on campaign finance reports.

In return, Poole turned a fast $30,000 profit on a $100,000 “investment” with Wilson in Cannonsgate and another $25,000 profit on a similar deal at Summer House and paid no income taxes. Boyle called the payments a “tip.” Easley appointed Wilson to the state Board of Transportation.

“Where was the state?” Boyle asked. “What was [the agency’s] role? Protect developers or protect the coast?”

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce said it was impossible to know if these projects would have been approved without Poole’s intervention. From media reports and other documents, he said, the government learned of payments from Wilson to Poole. Bruce also said prosecutors chose to pursue the single charge of tax evasion because the sentencing guidelines for that offense allowed a prison term of up to five years, and other offenses would have carried shorter recommended sentences.

In addition to the $30,000 fine, Poole was ordered to pay more than $16,000 restitution for the unpaid taxes. He has settled this obligation. And by receiving a sentence of 12 months and one day, Poole can receive credit for “exemplary behavior,” reducing the time he’ll spend incarcerated. The “good time credit” is approximately 15 percent of time served, or roughly seven weeks a year. Poole could complete his sentence in a little more than 10 months. If the sentence had been 12 months or less, Poole would have been forced to serve the entire time behind bars.

Poole is expected to report to prison July 15. He requested assignment to the federal correctional facility in Bennettsville, S.C.

Rick Henderson is managing editor of Carolina Journal.