Poole was often Easley's shadow

Some worry his role crossed the line between politics, fundraising

Staff WriterOctober 28, 2009 

Ruffin Poole was a newly minted lawyer in the late 1990s when he started working in an obscure section of the state Attorney General's Office for Mike Easley.

By the time Easley left office as a two-term governor this year, Poole had risen to executive counsel. He was a patronage boss and a go-to guy on economic development, environmental issues, transportation concerns and other regulatory matters.

He came to be known as a fixer.

Poole was active in some of Easley's political efforts, putting him at the intersection of shepherding government action while raising money for candidates, according to records and testimony from the State Board of Elections hearing this week on Easley's fundraising.

Elections board members have been asking about Poole and want to talk with him. He isn't giving interviews, and Monday he persuaded a Wake judge to quash a subpoena that would have required his testimony. Poole argued that the attorney-client privilege protected him from talking. Elections board members, all five of them lawyers, voted unanimously to appeal.

They say they want to hear from Poole about fundraising and wouldn't delve into privileged matters. They cut short the hearing on Tuesday to help prepare the case for the state Court of Appeals . It was set to be heard at 9:30 a.m. today.

Joe Sinsheimer, a political consultant who has become a campaign finance watchdog, said testimony about Poole has raised some concerns.

"It would be inappropriate for the governor's counsel to be involved in high-dollar fundraising at the same time he's interacting with multiple state departments," Sinsheimer said. "Mr. Poole should have been smart enough to know that there has to be a dividing line."

Poole, 37, graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1994 and went to work for a top lobbyist, Zeb Alley. He soon entered law school at N.C. Central in Durham, where Easley's wife, Mary, was a professor. He is active in Raleigh's arts community.

Close to governor

Poole was often seen a few steps behind or beside the governor at key meetings. He is now Easley's colleague at the McGuireWoods law firm in Raleigh.

Questions about Easley have arisen during the past year related to big-money donors who won appointments and possibly flouted campaign-finance rules. There are also questions of dismissed violations for an Easley friend at the Division of Motor Vehicles. And there has been attention on environmental permits, too.

Poole operated in all those areas, and his name has appeared on subpoenas to state agencies seeking information for a federal grand jury that is probing subjects dealing with Easley.

Poole traveled with Easley frequently and many times was the only other passenger besides a trooper to ride with the governor aboard state aircraft.

Most of the trips he was on were for political reasons, records show, such as a trip the two made to Chicago in June 2008 to meet with then-candidate Barack Obama and other governors.

Easley also appointed Poole to the Golden LEAF foundation board, which oversees how millions from the national tobacco settlement are distributed in North Carolina. Several close Easley advisers are on the panel.

Politics and fundraising

Testimony this week has also shown Poole involved in politics and fundraising. For example, millionaire developer Lanny Wilson of Wilmington wrote a $10,000 check for the state Democratic Party in 2006, but he mailed it directly to an Easley campaign post box and addressed it only to Ruffin Poole.

On Tuesday, a developer, Gary Allen, testified about having trouble getting permits for a boat ramp and dock at a coastal neighborhood he was building in Brunswick County called Oyster Harbour.

Allen turned to Wilson, who was a business partner and one of Easley's major fundraisers, for help, he said. Allen said that Wilson reached out to Poole. Allen said he also talked with and maybe wrote to Poole on the issue.

Documents show Wilson helped set up a meeting between the governor and Allen for June 4, 2003, as the permit was pending. The purpose was for Easley to solicit a large donation from Allen, Wilson testified.

Poole was mentioned in a memo, written to give Easley some background on Allen, about the status of the permit.

"Ruffin is familiar with the issue and I would suggest that you touch [base] with him...," Wilson wrote to the campaign's chief fundraiser, Michael Hayden, who was going to brief Easley.

A $50,000 check

On June 29, records show, Allen wrote a check for $50,000 to the state party. Wilson testified Monday that it was intended for Easley's campaign, which would be a violation of campaign finance law. Allen said he couldn't recall that level of detail.

Records show Allen submitted updated requests for the ramp and dock permit on July 9 and July 10, 2003. The state Division of Coastal Management issued the permit on Oct. 16 that year, records show.

Allen denied that his campaign donation had any connection to the permit issue. And he said Poole didn't really smooth the way. He said he ended up having to hire an engineering firm, and had to spend tens of thousands more than he planned to construct a bridge that alleviated concerns and won the permit.

"It really had nothing to do with anything else," Allen said of his donation.

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service