Ruffin Poole was known in state government for his rapid rise from a personal assistant to the governor to Mike Easley's executive counsel. He took trips to Costa Rica and New Orleans on private jets with high-rolling businessmen, and he elbowed his way into a $55,000 payoff.
But on Tuesday, none of those friends were in U.S. District Court when Poole faced Judge Terrence Boyle. And Easley had months ago cut a deal to end investigations of him, pleading to a felony, paying a $1,000 fine and avoiding prison time.
Boyle sentenced Poole to a year in prison for tax evasion, fined him $30,000 - and seemed irritated that prosecutors had structured a deal that limited the judge's ability to impose a tougher sentence.
Poole had acknowledged that he used his position to gain environmental approvals for coastal developments. In return, he was cut into a no-lose investment opportunity in Cannonsgate and Summerhouse, high-dollar communities conceived in the red-hot real estate market of the mid-2000s.
Boyle showed little interest in the good works that Poole had done before or after his criminal behavior.
Judge has questions
Boyle peppered federal prosecutors with questions. Poole had admitted to taking bribes, so why was this treated only as an evasion of income taxes? Did Poole's efforts harm the environment? And why had no one else had been charged?
"How did everyone else get so lucky?" Boyle asked. "Did you target only him and figured he would be the break in the dam and the water would be flowing?"
Prosecutors provided little ammunition for a heavier sentence. They didn't explain why the bribe payer wasn't charged, and they could not say whether Poole's actions helped win the environmental permits.
Boyle chewed on the earpieces of his glasses for a moment, then took a 15-minute recess. When he came back, he spared Poole a tongue-lashing and sentenced him to one day above the minimum. Poole, 39, of Raleigh, will also spend two more years on supervised release.
He's likely to lose his law license, which already has been suspended.
Poole, dressed in a dark blue suit and red-striped tie, apologized briefly for his criminal conduct.
"Your honor, I'm sorry to be standing here before you and all the family and friends present," he said. "I'm deeply remorseful. My mistakes will follow me for a lifetime."
Poole's attorney, Joseph Zeszotarski, said the case has taken its toll on his client. Poole, he said, had lost 20 pounds and "his career path is gone."
Poole showed little emotion during the hearing, often looking down at the defense table. When Boyle said that Poole would report to prison in two months, his wife, Kathryn, gasped, began sobbing and collapsed into the arms of a friend.
Poole will report to prison July 15. Boyle accepted Poole's request to serve his time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Bennettsville, S.C., just across the border from Laurinburg.
Poole did not comment as he left the courtroom with a throng of family and friends, some of whom grabbed and shoved reporters as they sought to ask him questions.
The sentencing ends a two-year probe into the Easley administration that produced a felony conviction in state court for the former governor, a Democrat, for failing to disclose a campaign flight paid for by a supporter. Investigators had been looking into various perks given to the governor and his family by people and businesses who needed help from state government.
Striking a deal
Poole was ensnared when investigators began looking at Cannonsgate, a development in Carteret County. Easley had received a $137,000 discount on a lot in Cannonsgate, which was financed by Lanny Wilson, a major political fundraiser from Wilmington and a former member of the state Board of Transportation.
Wilson told investigators he let Poole invest in Cannonsgate and another coastal development to curry favor with him. Poole made $30,000 from Cannonsgate and $25,000 from Summerhouse, prosecutors said, and paid no income taxes on the profit.
Poole was originally charged with more than 50 counts related to corruption. But shortly before his trial was to begin last spring, he struck a deal with prosecutors to plead to one count of income tax evasion related to the Cannonsgate profits.
The plea agreement stipulated that the profits from both developments represented a bribe from Wilson, who did not need Poole's help to finance the projects.
Under sentencing guidelines, Poole faced 12 to 18 months in prison and a maximum $30,000 fine for the crime. Prosecutors John Bruce and Dennis Duffy requested Boyle sentence Poole to the upper end of the sentencing guidelines and fine him $74,000, which they said represented the illegal profits, plus other perks Poole received such as the trips on private jets.
Feds get little help
Poole was supposed to cooperate with the federal investigation as part of his plea deal, but prosecutors said what he provided was of little use.
"He did not substantially assist the government," U.S. Attorney George Holding, a Republican, said in an interview.
Holding defended the plea deal, saying taking the case to trial would have been costly and might not have led to a conviction.
He also said the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to political corruption cases when it struck down the law allowing public officials to be charged with failing to provide "honest services" in their duties. The decision means prosecutors have to prove officials acted corruptly in exchange for bribes, instead of presenting evidence that they hid conflicts of interest that indicated corrupt conduct.
"Until Congress enacts a new law, we're in a tough bind," Holding said.
While Wilson, Easley and others weren't in the courthouse, it was nearly packed with Poole's friends and supporters.
Among them was Zeb Alley, a longtime top lobbyist at the state legislature who in 1995 gave Poole a job shortly after college. Poole worked as a lobbyist for a few months before going to N.C. Central University to earn his law degree. He then joined the state Attorney General's office, which was then held by Easley.
He stayed with Easley when he was elected governor in 2000, and became known as the go-to guy for Easley's political supporters. Wilson and others dubbed Poole the "Little Governor."
Alley predicted Poole will get his life back together once he finishes his sentence.
"It will be a bump in the road that he'll get over," Alley said. "I have a lot of faith in Ruffin."
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