Easley aide shepherded permit

Poole contacted regulators about development where Easley got lot deal.

Staff WriterDecember 17, 2009 

  • Former Gov. Mike Easley has hired veteran criminal defense attorney Joseph Cheshire V to represent him.

    Easley has faced scrutiny by federal investigators for most of this year. They have reviewed land deals for a choice waterfront lot in Carteret County, a lucrative job his wife secured at N.C. State University, loans of vehicles and flights on private planes he failed to report.

    Cheshire has significant experience representing public officials in corruption cases.

    Mandy Locke

  • Week of June 6: Easley counsel Ruffin Poole contacts Charles Jones, head of the state Division of Coastal Management, to find out the status of the CAMA permit, which assesses its impact on water quality. Jones believes the call came June 8 or 9.

    June 8: Cannonsgate wastewater plant permit is granted by Division of Water Quality.

    June 8: Erosion permit changed to get "express review." Permit granted two days later.

    June 9: Easley appoints developer Randy Allen to the state's Wildlife Resources Commission.

    June 10: Jones writes to Poole. He said he had talked with Jason Dail, who was reviewing the CAMA permit, and they would expect a revised application.

    June 15: Dail asks the developers to get him information "as fast as you can" in order for the application to be completed. Application is filed that day.

    June 20: Easley writes a $5,000 check to reserve his lot in Cannonsgate. When Easley closed later that year, records show, he was given a $137,000 discount, an arrangement not disclosed in public records.

  • Ruffin Poole is due to testify at 4 p.m. at the state Board of Elections, which wants to hear what he knows about former Gov. Mike Easley's campaign.

    The board's probe has already resulted in a referral to a state prosecutor to investigate evidence of possible crimes committed by Easley and others while in office. The board also has fined the Easley campaign $100,000.

    Poole has fought the board's efforts to compel him to testify, but he lost at the state Court of Appeals.

    Poole now works at the same law firm as Easley: McGuireWoods. A spokesman for the firm, based in Richmond, Va., says it expects Poole to cooperate with the state investigation as long as it is within his ethical duties as a lawyer.

    J. Andrew Curliss

A top aide to then-Gov. Mike Easley contacted a top state regulator about a permit for the Cannonsgate residential development where Easley bought a waterfront lot at a special price, according to interviews and documents.

Records show a flurry of activity involving the proposed 525-acre development in Carteret County in June 2005 when Easley counsel Ruffin Poole made contacts with the environmental official about the project's permits.

That official, Charles S. Jones, said it was not typical for Poole, the governor's right-hand man, to call him about permits and that the inquiry was "absolutely" treated with a high priority. Jones was director of the Division of Coastal Management and has since retired.

"I did hear from Ruffin Poole," Jones said. "I know he checked in on Cannonsgate. ... I guess it was because he'd had an inquiry from someone asking to check on it."

Jones said he could not recall many of the details from four years ago about the sequence of actions taken on Cannonsgate. The development, planned and sold at the height of a coastal land boom, was spearheaded by developers Gary and Randy Allen, brothers whose companies are in Charlotte.

Separately, new records and interviews show that Randy Allen offered a discounted lot to a relative of a regulator who issued a crucial permit.

Both Allens were political supporters of Easley, a Democrat who left office in January. Easley received a $137,000 discount on a choice Cannonsgate lot that Easley bought after the state permits were issued by his administration.

A spokesman for Easley said the former governor would not comment on whether he spoke with Poole or the Allens about the permits because of continuing investigations.

"The governor is fully cooperating," said Ace Smith, a political consultant in California. "It would be inappropriate to comment."

Poole, 37, could not be reached for comment. He has declined repeated requests for an interview.

Joe Sinsheimer, a Democratic consultant who has been active in government reform efforts, said Poole's involvement was improper.

"There's been a long-standing belief in state government that campaign donors and those who are politically connected get special treatment," Sinsheimer said. "Mr. Poole's advocacy seems to confirm that."

Another deal offered

Easley wasn't the only government official offered a discount at Cannonsgate. Records and interviews show that Randy Allen in August 2005 offered the state regulator who authorized one of Cannonsgate's key permits a deal described in an e-mail message as one of a kind: $40,000 off the sale price of a lot for the permit reviewer's stepfather.

The offer to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources official, Jason Dail, was approved personally by Randy Allen a week after the permit was granted, according to an e-mail message. It also said Dail would be at the front of the line for other deals should someone "fall out," or back out of a lot reservation.

"He[y] bud," says the e-mail to Dail from an official at Allen's company, "it took a lot to get this going but we got you up to the front of the list for any fall out."

The offer mentions that two lots were available. They were originally priced at $159,880 but were going back on the market for $199,000.

"Randy said that it would be ok if you[r] step father had it for the original price (no one else has been allowed to do this).," the message says. "I am glad we got this worked out."

The deal did not happen. Dail, who works in Wilmington, said the 20 percent discount "fizzled" when his stepfather backed away. Dail said he first asked about lots, which led to the offer from Allen's company.

Dail said he saw nothing improper about asking about a lot because he had already approved the project.

Diana Kees, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, said the agency became aware of the offer to Dail this week. "We will deal with any alleged potential past misdeeds of our employees in due course," she said.

A lawyer for the Allen brothers said that all the permits for Cannonsgate are legitimate and were obtained based on sound engineering. The lawyer, Steve Smith of Raleigh, said he was unaware of the offer made by Randy Allen.

Permits make or break

Permits are vital to developers for several reasons: Projects stall without them, deals fall through, or delays cost time and money.

Dail, who worked under Charles Jones, was the main reviewer of what's known as a CAMA permit, which deals with the effects of a proposed development on water quality, habitats and other such issues in coastal counties.

The News & Observer has previously reported on a separate permit for the project's wastewater plant in a series published in May. McQueen Campbell, Easley's friend and a broker in the Cannonsgate deal, had claimed that political contacts helped Gary Allen secure the wastewater permit in half the normal time, documents showed.

Campbell would not reveal whom he or Gary Allen spoke with to get things done, saying only that he knew whom to call to make things happen. Campbell's lawyer declined comment Wednesday.

Jones, who headed the Division of Coastal Management about three years until his retirement in 2007, was contacted by Poole about the CAMA permit the week of June 6, 2005, according to his memory and records.

Jones checked on the permit with Dail and told Poole in a June 10 e-mail that he was expecting a revised application.

By mid-July, Dail indicated to Randy Allen's company he was finished with the review for the CAMA permit but that it was delayed until federal regulators had a look. When that was wrapped up a month later, the permit was granted.

That's when Dail says he then inquired about a lot for his stepfather. Jones said he was unaware his employee had made such a contact. "It's not good," he said. "Not good at all."

News researcher Denise Jones contributed.

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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