Thursday, July 12, 2007

US: Jim Black's tangled tale

Former North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black was sentenced to five years in prison on Wednesday afternoon
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Jim Black's tangled tale
The Associated Press
July 11

A chronology of former Rep. Jim Black's career, troubles

November 1980: Black, an optometrist, is elected to the state House; loses second re-election bid in 1984.
November 1990: Black re-elected to the House after losing races in 1986 and 1988.
January 1995: Republicans win control of state House. Black is chosen minority leader, begins to build reputation as powerful campaign fundraiser for fellow Democrats.
January 1999: Democrats regain House control. Black narrowly defeats Dan Blue, D-Wake, to become speaker.
January 2001: Black wins second term as speaker in a unanimous vote. Presides over the longest two-year session in history due to recession, redistricting and dissident Democrats who delay passage of state budget.
January 2003: Republicans hold 61-59 majority in House until Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, defects from party. Dissident Republicans led by Rep. Richard Morgan, R-Moore, broker power-sharing deal that ends with Black and Morgan as co-speakers.
September 2003: Decker switches back to the GOP, loses re-election bid in 2004 primary.
January 2005: Democrats regain House majority. Black re-elected to sole speakership.
Spring-summer 2005: Black, a former lottery foe, backs Gov. Mike Easley's campaign to push a lottery bill through legislature.
April 6, 2005: House votes 61-59 in favor of stand-alone lottery bill. Senate passes bill Aug. 30 in controversial, eleventh-hour action that requires tiebreaking vote by Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue.
June 2005: Black backs provision in state budget bill requiring comprehensive eye exams for all children entering public kindergarten. Local officials balk at the cost; critics accuse Black of pandering to fellow optometrists to win campaign contributions. The legislature cuts back the requirement significantly in July 2006.
Sept. 22, 2005: Black appoints public relations consultant Kevin Geddings to the new state lottery commission.
Nov. 1, 2005: Geddings resigns from commission hours before lottery company Scientific Games reveals it paid him $24,500 for communications work that he failed to list on state disclosure forms.
Late 2005: Federal grand jury begins close examination of Black's campaign finances, ties to lobbyists and his connections to the lottery and video poker industries.
Dec. 14, 2005: Black acknowledges ``mistakes in judgment'' regarding lottery. He vows to be more careful with lobbyists, donors and colleagues, and to accept no more gifts from lobbyists.
Feb. 10, 2006: State Board of Elections asks prosecutors to investigate possible campaign finance violations by Decker and M. Scott Edwards, a leader in the North Carolina State Optometric Society's political action committee.
March 23, 2006: Elections board rules that Black's campaign illegally accepted corporate contributions and checks with the payee line left blank. The campaign forfeits at least $16,875, and board asks state prosecutors to decide whether Black should be charged criminally with breaking state campaign finance laws.
Aug. 1, 2006: Decker pleads guilty to a federal conspiracy charge for accepting $50,000 to switch parties in 2003; later names Black as coconspirator, which Black denies.
Aug. 11, 2006: Former Black aide Meredith Norris pleads no contest to state charges of violating lobbying laws by working on Scientific Games' behalf without registering as a lobbyist at the same time she was Black's unpaid political director.
Oct. 12, 2006: Geddings convicted of fraud by federal jury.
Oct. 25, 2006: Former Scientific Games executive Alan Middleton, whom prosecutors said worked with Norris and Geddings in a failed attempt to win state business, is convicted of lobbying state lawmakers without registering.
Nov. 28, 2006: Three weeks after Election Day, state elections board declares Black has won re-election by only 30 votes.
Dec. 12, 2006: Black says he will not seek a fifth term as speaker.
Jan. 24, 2006: Black says he will not seek re-election to the House in two years, regardless of the outcome of investigations into his campaign finances.
Feb. 6, 2007: Edwards agrees not to fight a charge of felony obstruction of justice, in return for prosecutors dropping charges of lying on campaign finance reports.
Feb. 14, 2007: Black resigns from his House seat, citing ``the health and welfare of my family.''
Feb. 15, 2007: Black pleads guilty to a public corruption charge in federal court for accepting cash from three chiropractors while Black pushed the industry's agenda. Prosecutors said Black received $25,000 in cash from the chiropractors. The charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Feb. 20, 2007: Black enters an Alford plea to state charges of offering a bribe and obstructing justice.
April 27, 2007: Decker is sentenced to four years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
May 7, 2007: Geddings is sentenced to four years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
June 6, 2007: U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III recuses himself from Black's sentencing, citing needs for closure and public confidence in the justice system. While an attorney, Dever had sued Black and other state officials over redistricting.
July 11, 2007: Black is sentenced in federal court to more than five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. He has yet to be sentenced in state court.

Black’s sentencing casts shadow on lawmakers
By Mark Binker
Staff Writer

RALEIGH — As former House Speaker Jim Black faces more than five years in prison for his part in a federal corruption case, lawmakers wonder how long they will be sentenced to live under the cloud of suspicion that now hangs over the General Assembly.

Politicians have never lived in a complete state of grace when it comes to public opinion, but North Carolina at one time enjoyed a reputation as a "good government state" where elected leaders in general steered clear of shady dealings.

The Black scandal has blighted not only the man himself, but that reputation, particularly in the General Assembly where he served.

"It's corruption so severe, so egregious, that the people not only lose faith in politicians but lose faith in democracy itself," said U.S. Attorney George Holding after Black's sentencing. Voters, he said, could be driven away from the polls by sheer apathy caused by disenchantment with politicians gone bad.

Even though Holding said that it "was the end of the line" for Black, suggesting some closure in the case, he noted that investigations into the issues surrounding the former speaker were ongoing.

In federal court, Black pleaded guilty to taking about $25,000 in cash from chiropractors over the course of three years. But a series of state and federal court hearings and investigations by the State Board of Elections raised numerous questions about how he gained and wielded the powers of his office.

Black faces an eventual sentencing on state corruption charges while at least one former legislative ally, Rep. Thomas Wright of New Hanover County, has been referred by the State Board of Elections to prosecutors for further investigation.

And revelations keep coming.

In one recently revealed twist, prosecutors alleged Black had gotten an undocumented $500,000 loan in 2000 from an unnamed lobbyist. The loan was repaid, according to testimony in court Monday.

"When it's $500,000 there's a strong inference that lobbyist is owed something," said Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican.

High-profile corruption cases can call into question the ethics of rank-and-file legislators who have done nothing wrong, he said.

"Look at me, I got questioned by somebody anonymously just because I got $300 from the optometrists," Blust said. He was referring to a story on a conservative Web site that questioned why he took money in 2006 from a political action committee linked to the former speaker.

The allegation rang hollow both because Black's allies were no longer in control of the PAC at the time and because Blust was an opponent of the former speaker, relegated to cramped office space and the "back bench" of the General Assembly in exchange for his criticisms. Nevertheless, Blust was forced to answer the charges.

"There are going to be these questions until we show it's impossible to buy us," Blust said, calling for a new round of ethics and lobbying reform legislation.

"I don't think we'll be forever tainted, but I'm sort of feeling it right now," said Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat.

Harrison was one of a few Democrats to call for Black to step down even before he was charged and has been repaying money he gave her campaign directly and through the state party operation.

"This distracts from the work we're doing here," Harrison said as she opened one of the big wooden sets of side doors to the House floor. "I hear from constituents who are angry about one thing, and they'll make a comment about politicians in general. We're all tarred by the same brush."

What's unclear is how, if or when that tar might come off.

"I worry as much as anything about the young people, 18 to 24, who feel government is irrelevant and politicians are corrupt," said Bob Phillips, executive director of N.C. Common Cause. He says the perception is unfair but real.

"This event contributes big time to the lack of trust in government," Phillips said.

Contact Mark Binker at (919) 832-5549 or

Copyright © 2007
The News & Record
and Landmark Communications, Inc.

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