Poole's arrest puts reform in fast lane

Staff WriterJanuary 29, 2010 

Leading lawmakers and the governor are shaping a wide range of reforms that promise more accountability and sunshine across state government, fixes aimed at restoring trust after a stretch of scandals.

The efforts are moving with speed and are coalescing as another embarrassment commands attention: Ruffin Poole, a longtime senior aide to former Gov. Mike Easley, was arrested and appeared in court Thursday for the first time since his indictment last week on 51 corruption charges.

Poole, 38, has not entered a plea. He and his lawyer declined to comment Thursday.

It is the latest in a string of allegations about wrongdoing in state government's highest echelons, including the arrest and guilty plea three years ago of former House Speaker Jim Black. That episode prompted reforms, too, including a new ethics law.

Officials in the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate have said since last year that Easley's troubles were making clear the need for more changes. But they put off action until the legislature returns in May.

The new Senate majority leader, Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat, said in an interview there are 20 or more measures "that folks are kicking around."

"You don't want to get expectations up, but with 20 ideas, you could see making something in the short session out of 10 of 'em," Nesbitt said. "Everything is on the table."

Rep. Rick Glazier, a Fayetteville Democrat and one of that chamber's leaders on ethics issues, said gaps in laws and the circumstances in the Easley case point to the need for change.

"This will be very substantial," he said.

The News & Observer has reported that Easley's family used cars they didn't own, and that Easley took free flights he didn't disclose. He also accepted at least $50,000 in free golf dues from an exclusive golf club, and he got a $137,000 discount on a coastal lot from a developer who had won permits from the Easley administration.

The reports prompted hearings by the state Board of Elections, which shed new light on campaign fundraising. The board sought new laws that hold candidates responsible for their campaigns.

Republicans have also been pushing for reforms, and say they welcome the chance to shore up confidence in government.

"Governor Perdue and her Democratic colleagues in the General Assembly must finally heed the calls for ethics reform from Republicans and stamp out corruption in state government once and for all," Sen. Phil Berger, the GOP leader, said in a statement.

Among the ideas circulating:

Forcing disclosures by "bundlers," people who raise money for campaigns, at a threshold of, say, $30,000. The change would help the public know who the key money people are in campaigns. Now, there is no such disclosure.

Limiting contributions that candidates can give each other. It would diffuse donations. In the past, key lawmakers have collected huge sums and then distributed the money across the state to key contested districts. Critics say it gives too much clout to too few people.

Giving more money and muscle to the state Board of Elections and state Ethics Commission for investigations and to better educate public officials.

Requiring members of roughly 15 of the major state boards and commissions to report their campaign contributions and fundraising activities.

Making officials file ethics disclosures that cover their final year in office.

Banning all gifts to all public employees and officials, with penalties for violations.

The gift ban is far from certain. A compromise could lead to requiring disclosure by officials of gifts valued at more than $100 from people doing business with the state and $200 from anyone else. Thosethresholds existed previously but were stripped out of ethics requirements by lawmakers three years ago.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Bev Perdue acknowledged that changes are under review and that reforms will be made, including some that will not require legislative action.

"She is also seeking the support of state leaders in many arenas, including the General Assembly, and she's encouraged by the conversations she's had," said press secretary Chrissy Pearson. "She has to balance idealism with reality, but the package will be strong and it will be bold."

'Corrosive effect'

Jane Pinsky, who is leading a broad and bipartisan coalition of interest groups seeking change, said officials must act. She pointed to numerous polls by universities and interest groups that show confidence in government sagging.

"Forty-five or 50 percent of North Carolinians think our government is corrupt," she said. "This is and has a corrosive effect on our society... and government hangs on citizens having faith in government.They must restore the confidence."

acurliss@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4840

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