Local Politics

Black Gets Prison, $1 Million Fine on Obstruction Charge

Posted July 31, 2007

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— Former House Speaker Jim Black's fall from power is almost complete after he was sentenced Tuesday to eight to 10 months on an obstruction of justice charge and was fined $1 million.

Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens withheld sentencing Black on a bribery charge until December, allowing Black that time to pay off the fine.

If he meets that deadline, Stephens said he would sentence Black to between 19 and 23 months in prison for bribery and would run both sentences at the same time as Black's current federal prison sentence. If he doesn't, he could face more prison time.

Black spent his first night behind bars in the county jail Monday night after surrendering to U.S. marshals to begin a 63-month federal prison sentence for public corruption.

"It's all about money and the lust for power," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said during the sentencing hearing. "That's what this case is about -- trying to get power and hold onto power."

Black, a 72-year-old Mecklenburg County Democrat, held the top position in the state House for a record eight years before resigning in February and pleading guilty to both state and federal charges.

"Everybody in North Carolina pretty much knows my life has been ruined unless I can take the rest of my life and turn it around and make it something useful," he said Tuesday during the hearing. "This whole thing bothers me. ... I've embarrassed my family (and) the state."

Stephens said listening to Black's financial misdeeds troubled him as much as listening to a gang-related slaying case on Monday.

"We got to look into the window of politics, and the view from this window is rather unsavory," he said. "For some people, the chase for power becomes an intoxicating obsession, and they seem to be willing to do anything to get it or to hold onto it."

Stephens said he considered whether to force Black to serve the state sentence after he completed his time at a minimum-security federal prison camp in Lewisburg, Pa. He said the state is the victim of Black's crimes.

"I do believe that the way you punish a person who has abused political influence and has abused money and has abused power is by taking away that influence and that power and also by taking away the money," he said. "I think the federal government has taken care of taking away the power and taking away the influence. It's the purpose of my sentence to take away the money."

But defense attorney Ken Bell said Black's wife, Betty Black, who is in poor health, likely will bear the brunt of the fine.

The bribery charge stems from Black's actions in early 2003 after the Republicans had won a narrow majority in the House.

Former Forsyth County Rep. Michael Decker said Black gave him $50,000 to switch to the Democratic Party and back his candidacy for speaker, allowing Black to forge a power-sharing agreement with former GOP Rep. Richard Morgan.

Black has repeatedly denied bribing Decker, but he said Tuesday that he gave Decker at least $10,000 around the time Decker switched parties. He said the money was a gift "to help him with his living conditions," noting Decker lived out of a broken-down van while in Raleigh.

Authorities have said much of the money given to Decker came from campaign donations from optometrists across North Carolina in which the payee line on the checks had been left blank.

Speaking so softly that he had to be asked several times to repeat himself, Black said he couldn't remember where the money came from, noting he and his wife always had cash and that he was "generous with my money."

He testified that Decker first approached him about selling his vote in 1997. He said he rebuffed the effort but never reported it because he didn't think the GOP power structure would pursue the case.

They met again after the 2002 election when Decker couldn't gain a leadership position in the Republican caucus. Black said he gave Decker cash after gaining his support and that of other lawmakers in his bid for re-election to the speaker's position.

"They were on my team," Black said, adding that he wouldn't have given them money if they didn't support his candidacy.

The obstruction of justice charge stemmed from allegations that Black encouraged chiropractors to fudge when speaking to authorities about cash they had given to Black. The cash payments, which topped $25,000, were the basis of the federal corruption charge.

"I'm not denying I took cash from chiropractors that I was not supposed to take," he said, calling it "one of the worst mistakes I've ever made."

Still, Black said the chiropractors' money wasn't in exchange for backing legislation favorable to the industry.

"There was never, ever, ever a quid pro quo," he said. "I have always separated that."

Willoughby also questioned Black about a $500,000 gift from lobbyist Don Beason in 2000. The testimony was the first time Beason was identified as the lobbyist involved with the money, which was made public shortly before Black was sentenced in federal court.

Beason is regularly ranked among the state's most powerful lobbyists, and he represents clients from BB&T to BellSouth to the North Carolina Restaurant Association. In 2000, he also represented video poker industry.

Black said the money from Beason was a bridge loan to help him redevelop a building in Charlotte that was mistakenly deposited in his campaign account. But he said it was quickly repaid after the real estate deal fell apart.

"I borrowed the money for a business transaction," Black said. "It was quicker and easier (to take Beason's money). The bank puts you through a lot of hoopla, and Don Beason doesn't."

Black said he never reported the transaction in his campaign-finance reports because "it was a wash," and he said he didn't consider it unethical.

Virginia Kelly, Black's former campaign treasurer, testified that Black put $500,000 from his personal or business account into the campaign fund shortly after Black repaid Beason.

Beason has testified before a federal grand jury about the transactions with Black, and his statements jibed with Black's version of the events, defense attorney Bell said.

150 Comments

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  • PD The Pirate Aug 2, 2007

    Introduce me to one honest politician and I will introduce you to a liar at the same time!!!!!Democrat or Republican, it does not matter.

  • lovecarolinagutters Aug 1, 2007

    I think that he got what he deserved. But, I really feel sorry for his wife. True, that she enjoyed the money, but here she is old and sick and now embarassed. Hope she has family support and gets along okay.

  • Sidekick Aug 1, 2007

    He displayed shock over the fine of $1 million. I bet his demeanor didn't change much regarding the implications of how this will affect his family. The money means far more to him than anything else in his life.

  • Timbo Aug 1, 2007

    Yellow dawg democrats...

  • mr_natural Aug 1, 2007

    I have tried to write a suitably worded comment, but my efforts have been too harsh. I do hope that his grandchildren visit him in prison. That is the best legacy he can leave his family - that of being a convicted felon. He is a shameful human being who thought laws didn't apply to him. Good riddance to him. Now to work on his similarly corrupt cronies.

  • simbo Aug 1, 2007

    The reason Jim Black would be reelected if you ran again is because there are people that will vote Democrate no matter who the candidate is. Wake up!

  • treasure Aug 1, 2007

    If Black could run again for office tomorrow, he would probably be re-elected.

  • Tax Man Aug 1, 2007

    Just don't understand - man steals from the state - gets laws passed that cost us taxpayers millions - takes bribes, give bribes - and then gets a pansy sentence! True he will have to serve about 4 years in federal prison, what with the 1 year being taken back due to his "alcoholism" and he will have to pay the million dollar fine. But Judge Stephens is allowing him to serve the two state sentences concurrently with the feds - so as long as he does not get more than 4 years from the state, he serves NO TIME AT ALL for the state crimes! These should have been added on the end of his federal sentence, plus the million dollar fines, plus full restitution to the state, payment of all legal fees of the state, full restitution to all of his victims. I guess Jim Black just hit the North Carolina Education Lottery! He should also have to testify against all the other crooks in our state legislature and send them all off to prison.

  • Rebel Aug 1, 2007

    I watched the sentencing of Jim Black today and when Judge Stephens said $1 million fine, he looked shocked. Guess he finally got hit where it hurt--in the pocketbook! I think Judge Stephens was fair in his sentencing--he's letting Black out of prison at age 80 so the taxpayers don't have to pay for his nursing home care. Seems fair to me.

    This case, plus Almond and the others that have been caught brings to mind an adage we should remember in the next election: Office holders (politicians) are like baby diapers--they need to be changed from time to time.

  • jgriffith3792 Jul 31, 2007

    Been sitting here watching the hearings this evening on WRAL. Jim Black is just a crook. How can anyone defend this man, or blame someone else? He has contradicted himslef several times - the best being when he said he didn't need the $500K as he had access to several million only to turn around and say he needed the money in the bank to get a loan!?!? He's a crook and a scoundrol.

    Thanks DA's office for prosecuting this criminal. Thanks, Judge Stephens for administering justice - excellent sentence. Sorry his family will suffer for his actions, but, *HE* (Black) should have thought of them and the consequences. He did this and has no one else to blame but himself - period.

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