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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) – A former aide to former Gov. Mike Easley was indicted Thursday on more than 50 federal counts, including extortion, bribery and money laundering over accusations he benefited financially while helping expedite coastal developments.
A federal grand jury in Raleigh issued 51 charges against Ruffin Poole, Easley’s former special counsel and aide during the governor’s two terms. the indictment accuses Poole of profiting from developments that had been approved by state regulators.
A “Wilmington financier” not identified by prosecutors sent $255,000 in payments to Poole from 2005 to 2007 as the return on financing from the Cannonsgate development in Carteret County and another coastal subdivision in Onslow County to a construction company owned by Poole’s family, according to the 64-page indictment. Poole invested $100,000 in each project, prosecutors said, appearing to make at least 25 percent returns quickly on his investments.
At the same time, Poole also benefited from the financier, who paid for a chartered jet that took him, Poole and others on an annual trip to Costa Rica, the indictment said. The financier also paid for much of Poole’s New Orleans bachelor party in 2005 and helped pay for an engagement party in Wilmington, prosecutors allege.
Easley is not accused of wrongdoing in the indictment, the first criminal charges filed in a wide-ranging probe by both state and federal investigators related to Easley, a Democrat who served eight years until January 2009 due to term limits.
The maximum punishments for the felonies filed against Poole add to up hundreds of years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
Joe Cheshire, Poole’s attorney, said in a statement issued Thursday night that while Gov. Easley has no knowledge of the conduct described in the indictment, Easley “has faith in Ruffin Poole and finds it hard to believe that he would ever intentionally violate the law.”
A warrant had been issued for Poole’s arrest, according to court documents. Poole planned to turn himself in but FBI spokeswoman Amy Thoreson declined to give other details Thursday evening.
“Public service should not be, and cannot be, an opportunity for improper personal gain by the employee, or by others relying on their friendship with that employee,” U.S. Attorney George Holding said in a news release.
Hours before the release of the indictment, state Board of Transportation member and developer Lanny Wilson of Wilmington resigned from the board. Wilson had been named earlier as a Cannonsgate investor and the indictment said Easley appointed the financier to the transportation board in 2001, just like Wilson was.
Writing to Gov. Beverly Perdue, Wilson said he was stepping down after nine years to avoid “any further unnecessary distractions” as the governor reforms the board and Department of Transportation. A woman answering the phone at the law firm of Wilson’s attorney said the lawyer wouldn’t respond to messages until Monday.
Federal grand jurors meeting in Raleigh for most of 2009 have called witnesses seeking testimony and documents about activities surrounding Easley, former first lady Mary Easley and his associates.
The indictment increases scrutiny around Easley, who bought a lot with his wife in Cannonsgate in 2005 and received a $137,000 discount, according to documents. An Easley attorney didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
The indictment said Poole knew state ethics rules about identifying financial relationships and gifts received but never mentioned many of those contained in the charges in his annual financial disclosure report.
“Likewise, at no point did Poole request advice on whether to disclose his investment in Cannonsgate,” the indictment read.
The indictments outlined a series of situations where Poole, 37, was allegedly approached by developers seeking assistance on getting state and federal permits approved.
In May 2005, McQueen Campbell, a close political ally of Easley, wrote Poole for help in expediting a waterline distribution permit at Cannonsgate so that the project remains on time. In less than an hour, Poole e-mailed Campbell by saying “I will get to work on these issues.”
Two months earlier, during the bachelor party weekend in New Orleans, Poole asked to be allowed to invest in the Cannonsgate financing because “he had lost some money in the ‘dot-com bust’ and needed to make up for his earlier losses,” the indictment said.
The financier ultimately agreed and Poole sent a $100,000 check to Wilson in September 2005, it said. By December, the financier had sent $130,000 to Poole Construction, from which Poole later transferred the money to himself, according to the indictment.
A Raleigh lawyer representing Gary Allen, identified previously as a former Charlotte resident who helped developed Cannonsgate, has said development permits for it and other projects were approved in a lawful manner.
The State Board of Elections already has acted against Easley’s campaign committee, ordering it Oct. 30 to pay a $100,000 penalty for failing to disclose dozens of flights taken by Easley while he was a candidate and piloted by Campbell. A local prosecutor is now examining whether to file criminal charges against Easley or others related to the campaign finance violations.
Poole declined to testify before the elections board during a public hearing, citing his right not to incriminate himself. Evidence in the hearing showed Poole was involved in fundraising for Easley’s campaign.