Former Easley aide pleads guilty, will cooperate


Fifty six other felony counts - including bribery and money laundering - were all dropped in a plea agreement with prosecutors.

The 38-year-old served as a personal assistant and special counsel to Easley. Poole was accused of participating in an elaborate pay-to-play scheme, in which a real estate developer would give him lavish gifts and secret investments, in order to make sure various permitting issues were resolved.

Poole was originally indicted in January after federal grand jurors met for most of 2009 on activities surrounding Easley and his associates. Easley has not been charged with any crimes.

At sentencing, Poole faces up to 5 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and 3 years probation.

In exchange for dropping all the other counts against him, Poole agreed to full cooperation in an ongoing federal probe and he agreed to take a lie detector test.

"Today is an important day. It's an important step forward in a complex continuing investigation," explained U.S. Attorney George Holding.

While Holding wouldn't comment on where that investigation might lead, others were willing to speculate.

"It's terrible news for Mike Easley and others that might have been involved in corruption," said NC government watchdog Joe Sinsheimer.

The former Democratic consultant says Poole has exactly what Holding needs.

"Ruffin Poole was along side the governor every day of Mike Easley's second administration. He's referred to as "The Little Governor" [in court papers] and he will be able to help federal prosecutors understand lots of Mike Easley's actions and motivations," said Sinsheimer.

For now, Holding is holding his cards close to his chest.

"I trust Mr. Poole's information will be valuable and I can promise that we will use the information and follow the evidence to wherever this investigation leads," he said.

Political observers say he must know a lot to have gotten the deal he did.

"If Ruffin Poole is having a bad day, I think former governor Easley must be having a terrible day," former federal prosecutor Kieran Shanahan said.

Shanahan says Poole's testimony may lead investigators to look at other politicians, including Governor Bev Purdue.

"When you look at her donor lists, and governor Easley's donor list, and she's a protégé of this pay to play system," Shanahan said. "I would be very concerned that I was also a subject of investigation."

State Republicans are also weighing in.

"We must collectively hold our laughter as we are expected to believe that the same people who corrupted the Easley administration had totally pure motives when engaging in the same activity with the Perdue campaign," GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer said.

Governor Perdue has repeatedly tried to distance herself from her predecessor. On Monday, staffers told ABC11 she had no part in the pay to play politics that surround Poole's indictment.

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