Easley Should Be Feeling Nervous Now
On the day that his one-time aide pleaded guilty to a single count of tax evasion, former Gov. Mike Easley issued a statement saying that he remained confident in Ruffin Poole's integrity.
Easley once expressed that kind of faith in another political confidante. Then pilot McQueen Campbell began cooperating with federal investigators and testified before the state Board of Elections that Easley failed to pay for airplane flights and disguised house repairs as campaign expenses.
Easley responded by essentially calling Campbell an impressionable sycophant.
A similar description may await Poole.
Like Campbell, the former Easley lawyer and patronage chief is now cooperating with federal investigators as they continue looking into the former governor's activities.
Poole appeared in a federal courtroom the other day to enter his plea. He had been facing 57 criminal charges, many of them related to profiting from the same Carteret County development where Easley and his wife, Mary, received a sweetheart deal on a lot. Prosecutors also outlined how Poole had become a conduit for Easley donor/developers to get environmental permits approved.
His deal doesn't mean that he'll be walking away unscathed. Poole still probably faces a significant prison sentence.
After telling a federal judge that he was indeed guilty of tax evasion, Poole left the courtroom only after an FBI agent shook his hand and told him, "We'll see you tomorrow."
Having a cup of tea and discussing the prospects of the Yankees and Red Sox probably wasn't on the next day's agenda.
Instead, prosecutors now have the cooperation of the person who stood at an intersection of money and power within the Easley administration.
Poole's official job for Easley was vetting appointees to policymaking boards and commissions. Big-money campaign donors often coveted those board seats. Their telephone calls didn't go ignored.
There's nothing unusual about any of that in politics.
But few people outside of Easley's inner circle were aware that Poole had also begun to run interference with state regulators whenever one of those donors ran into roadblocks. It was a bad mix destined to create conflicts of interest.
Those donors called Poole "the little governor." Obviously, the implication was that when he picked up the phone, he was doing the bidding of his boss.
Easley, though, in eight years in office, had a knack for passing the buck, -allowing blame to roll downhill. With Poole now cooperating with the feds, that tumbling blame could turn into an avalanche.
It is possible that Poole, when he called state environmental regulators to ask about a permit for a marina or a boat dock, did so to impress the wealthy developer crowd that he was now -running in.
There's just one problem with that -scenario: the five- and six-figure -contributions made to the state Democratic Party around the same time that permits were being approved.
Those donations suggest something more than a sycophant wanting to impress a governor or an aide just trying to keep the governor's buddies happy.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association in Raleigh. Contact him at email@example.com.
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