Ruffin Poole, an inner-circle aide to former Gov. Mike Easley, pleaded guilty Monday to a single count of income tax evasion in an abrupt deal that spared him a trial on 57 charges of corruption.
Poole, 38, of Raleigh, joins a growing group of Easley friends cooperating with investigators - and he gives federal prosecutors a high-ranking official who can describe the private side of the ex-governor's administration. Prosecutors said the guilty plea benefits their investigation. Agents have been questioning Easley supporters who received help from his administration.
Poole admitted in court Monday that he hid $30,000 in income he received in 2005 from the financial backer of Cannonsgate, a high-end residential development in Carteret County. Poole did not disclose the income on financial disclosure documents or his tax filing covering that year. Poole also ensured that permits on the Cannonsgate project were approved quickly, prosecutors have alleged.
Poole previously pleaded not guilty to all the charges, and a trial was set for May 3. Then, on Monday, prosecutors unexpectedly announced a plea hearing.
In court, U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle asked Poole whether he wanted to enter a different plea on the Cannonsgate tax charge.
"Guilty," Poole said in a firm voice.
The judge asked Poole if he was, in fact, guilty.
"Yes, sir," he said.
Poole faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the charge, although his cooperation could lead to a reduced sentence. A sentencing hearing has not been set as the broader investigation continues. Poole, who is married and has a daughter, is free until then.
Poole, a lawyer, almost certainly will lose his law license because of a felony conviction involving dishonesty or misrepresentation.
Poole's plea deal requires him to detail what he knows and submit to lie detector tests. If he lies, the information could be used against him, and all the charges would be reinstated.
Poole's job as an executive counsel and special counsel for Easley put him in the middle of politics and government. He oversaw important appointments. He kept up with the progress of state permits that are invaluable to developers. He also helped raise money for Easley, accepting checks from major supporters.
Prosecutors said Poole rose to his position in "an absolutely stunning" ascent through state government. Poole went from being an intern at the legislature to holding a corner office at the state Capitol in a matter of 10 years. He enjoyed a close friendship with Easley, a two-term Democrat.
U.S. Attorney George Holding, the top federal prosecutor in the eastern part of the state and a Republican, called Monday's plea a "good move forward" and an "important step" in the continuing probe.
"I trust that Mr. Poole's cooperation is going to be valuable," Holding told reporters. "I can promise that we will use the information. We will follow the evidence to wherever this investigation leads."
Richard Myers, a UNC-Chapel Hill law professor and former federal prosecutor, said the plea agreement doesn't mean there will be more indictments. He said it is standard in plea agreements to include a pledge of cooperation even if prosecutors have nothing in mind to extract.
Myers said Poole likely did not hugely reduce his possible prison time, though dozens of counts were dropped in exchange for a guilty plea on just one. That's because federal guidelines often reduce the amount of time a defendant can face.
"Even if you plead to 59 felony counts, under structured sentencing, you might be in the same place if you pled guilty to only one," Myers said.
If Poole were to become a prosecution witness, defense attorneys would point out that numerous criminal counts were dropped in exchange for his cooperation, Myers said.
But he said Poole could be a valuable guide to witnesses, documents and other evidence because of his relationship with Easley.
Prosecutors said Poole first asked Lanny Wilson, a major fundraiser and former state Board of Transportation member, to get in on the Cannonsgate deal while at a bachelor party Wilson threw for him in New Orleans.
Wilson, of Wilmington, was the financial backer of the coastal development.
Authorities said Poole had lost $72,000 during the tech stock bust and was looking to make it up.
Other people close to Easley who are cooperating with the investigation include Wilson, who prosecutors said Monday had cut Poole in on his Cannonsgate investment to curry favor. Wilson called Poole the "little governor" because of his role in the Easley hierarchy, according to court records.
Also cooperating is McQueen Campbell, a friend of Easley's who flew the governor at no cost and was a broker in the Cannonsgate development. Campbell helped Easley buy a lot there in 2005. Records show that Easley got his property at a $137,000 discount granted at closing.
The developers and marketers of Cannonsgate, brothers Gary and Randy Allen, are cooperating, according to their lawyer, Steve Smith of Raleigh. "But they knew nothing about Ruffin Poole's financial dealings," Smith said Monday.
On Monday, Easley's lawyers issued a statement of support for Poole: "After charging and recharging Ruffin Poole in a 77-page indictment with ... reported 'corruption,' the Government has chosen to dismiss every single one of those charges and allow Mr. Poole to plead guilty to one count of not properly reporting his personal income tax liability," said lawyers Joseph Cheshire and Brad Bannon. "Governor Easley remains supportive of Mr. Poole and his family and hopes this development will help them begin to move past this difficult time."
Easley has said that he is comfortable with authorities reviewing his years in public service. In January, Easley said he knew nothing of the conduct claimed by the indictment.
A hug for family
Neither Poole nor his lawyer, Joseph Zeszotarski of Raleigh, would comment. After the hearing, Poole embraced his wife and a family friend.
There were indications that he is already speaking with authorities.
As the courtroom emptied, Poole briefly spoke with Chuck Stuber, an FBI agent who is working the case. They shook hands.
"We'll see you tomorrow," the agent said.
"Thank you," Poole replied.
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