Local News

Board: Checks From Optometrists Ended Up With Black Ally

Posted February 9, 2006

— Several optometrists testified Wednesday that they turned over incomplete checks to a leader of the industry's state political action committee, who then made them payable to a former state representative closely allied with House Speaker Jim Black.

Their testimony during the opening day of a State Board of Elections hearing into potential campaign finance violations also indicated that several of the checks -- often for $100 -- ended up in the personal account of former Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, instead of with his campaign committee.

Many of the 12 optometrists who testified Wednesday said it had been common practice for years that donors who gave to the N.C. State Optometric Society PAC to write a number of small checks without listing a payee or even a date.

Such a practice could potentially allow a committee to avoid campaign finance disclosure laws and make donations in excess of legal limits.

Board chairman Larry Leake said after the hearing the board has yet decide whether the practice is unlawful, but believes it doesn't promote full disclosure. Should the board conclude the practice is illegal, it can issue penalties of up to three times the amount donated, issue a public rebuke or forward potential criminal activity to prosecutors.

One of Black's attorneys said the evidence presented Wednesday affirms that Black, who is also an optometrist, hasn't broken any laws or campaign finance rules. Ken Bell said the law allows PACs to collect and distribute donations in this fashion.

"It's all duly reported on (his) campaign report," Bell said. "Everything was done in a regular, ordinary and appropriate fashion with respect to the speaker."

The optometrists who testified Wednesday said they often sent the incomplete checks to Michael S. Edwards of Murfreesboro, a leader of the optometric society's PAC.

Records examined by the board Wednesday found someone filled in the payee or date often months later and gave the checks to various legislative candidates, as well as Black's campaign committee.

Both Edwards and Decker declined to comment during breaks in the hearing, which will resume Thursday morning. Both are among more than 40 people that have been asked to testify.

Rebecca Wartman, an Asheville optometrist, told the board she wrote 10 checks of $100 each without the date or payee listed.

"It was my intention that all checks would go to political campaigns," Wartman said.

But four of those checks ended up going to Decker's personal account, according to records examined by the board.

"You're essentially getting close to bribery," said Bob Hall, the research director of Democracy North Carolina, the campaign finance reform group that filed the complaint that led to Wednesday's hearing. "The whole thing just smells bad."

Wartman said she didn't know Decker, and she and other witnesses said they allowed Edwards to determine which legislative candidates would get the donations.

"Are we to believe that they had no idea how it was being spent?" board member Chuck Winfree asked Concord optometrist C.H. Smith.

"We felt that Dr. Edwards had experience in the political process," Smith responded.

The hearing was prompted by a 2004 complaint filed by Democracy North Carolina, which questioned whether donations made by the video poker industry exceeded legal limits.The board's investigation was broadened to include the campaign finances of Black and Decker, as well as the optometric society.

Campaign finance records show that donations to Decker, a Republican who abandoned his party for the Democrats in early 2003, spiked about the time he switched affiliation. That switch helped Black, D-Mecklenburg, win election as co-speaker in 2003. Decker later returned to the GOP and lost his re-election bid in 2004. Black later used state money to help fund a state job filled by Decker.

Also Wednesday, an attorney from a Winston-Salem law firm testified that the firm's lobbyist in Raleigh asked him to help raise money among colleagues, at the request of Black's staff, to donate to Decker's campaign in early 2003. The donations are legal.

The firm's lobbyist in Raleigh, Sandy Sands, testified later Wednesday that he could not recall why he was raising money for Decker, or who suggested he do so. But Sands said he forwarded the $2,500 in contributions for Decker from Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice attorneys directly to Black at that person's suggestion.

"I don't ever remember having a conversation with the speaker," Sands said.

Black declined to comment on Wednesday's testimony, saying he'll wait until after he sees whether the board calls him testify.

"You've got half of the picture, or a third of the picture, and some of it is quite misleading," Black said. "As we go along we'll be able to clarify some of those questions."

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