Local News

Black Says Documents Given To Grand Jury Affirm Innocence

Posted January 19, 2006

— House Speaker Jim Black reaffirmed his innocence Thursday after releasing more than 2,100 pages of documents given by his lawyer to a federal grand jury examining the video poker industry and passage of the state's new lottery.

The documents, however, appear to raise more questions about whether Meredith Norris, Black's former political director, violated the state's lobbying law while working last year for Scientific Games Corp. The company has since bid for the North Carolina Education Lottery's top vendor contracts.

Black, D-Mecklenburg, has received more money from the video poker industry than any state legislator in recent years and helped shepherd passage of the lottery law through the General Assembly last year. He has not been formally accused of wrongdoing and his lawyer, Ken Bell, said prosecutors tell him that Black is not a target of their investigation.

"The information shows yet again that my staff and I always put the interests of the people of our great state first, and we have done nothing illegal," Black told reporters after releasing the material. "I have never voted on a bill or taken a position on any issue due to a campaign contribution."

The new documents given to federal attorneys Wednesday include 1,849 pages sought by the grand jury in October, as well as 300 pages of personal e-mail correspondence between Norris and the speaker's staff.

In an e-mail dated last Aug. 20 -- less than two weeks before North Carolina became the last state on the East Coast to approve a lottery -- Norris asked Black to consider an idea from former Scientific Games executive Alan Middleton designed to persuade Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, to vote for a lottery. Brown was ultimately one of two senators absent during the final lottery vote in the Senate.

"Speaker -- please see note from Alan Middleton below," Norris wrote Black. "This sounds like a great idea. What do you think? Can you talk to the governor?"

Norris, Middleton and former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings are being investigated by state prosecutors for suspected lobbying law violations. Norris arranged several meals with Black and other legislators on the company's behalf, though she was not a registered lobbyist.

Black said he never talked to the governor in part because the lottery bill was already in the Senate.

He also continued to defend Norris' work, saying nothing she had done for Scientific Games constituted lobbying.

"I surround myself with bright people," he said. "Every once in a while, they'll make a mistake. ... She worked hard on my behalf."

Phone calls seeking comment from Norris, Middleton and their attorneys weren't immediately returned Thursday. Middleton no longer works for Scientific Games, his lawyer said this week.

Black's office also gave federal authorities a laptop issued to Black and a hard drive from a computer issued to Norris when she was on the speaker's staff at the General Assembly from 1999-2002.

Norris began lobbying for several clients after leaving Black's paid staff. Black said he authorized Norris to use his state-owned laptop computer to continue working on appointments to boards and commissions. By March 2004, according to one e-mail released Thursday, Black's staff wanted the computer returned.

"I also hope you understand why you need to give his laptop back -- you could get in a lot of trouble if anyone finds out that you have access to the network," Linda Attarian, then Black's general counsel, wrote to Norris.

The speaker said he erred by allowing Norris to use the laptop after she quit.

He also again acknowledged that he wouldn't have appointed Geddings to the lottery commission had he known he worked for Scientific Games. Geddings resigned from the commission hours before Scientific Games revealed he had been paid for work on its behalf up to the day after his appointment.

E-mails from Norris among those released Thursday indicate Geddings wanted to meet with Black last June, but no mention of Scientific Games is made. Black said he believed that Geddings wanted to speak with him about a possible campaign for Charlotte mayor last fall, but the two never met.

Other released documents cover a broad range of topics, from correspondence by video poker advocates and opponents, to economic developers seeking Black's support for local projects that needed state money.

They also contain requests for Black to help land government jobs for former Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, and his son, Michael Decker Jr. Decker, a Black ally, helped the speaker keep his leadership post in 2003 by switching briefly to the Democratic Party.

Documents related to many of the 28 people or groups that the grand jury sought information about three months ago -- including The Dol lHouse, a Raleigh strip club, a club co-owner, and several video poker interests -- haven't been found.

Black's office continues to search for subpoenaed documents, Bell said. It will be at least three weeks before Bell gets access to archived state e-mails that were never printed out.


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