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Witnesses Deny Others Paid For Their Donations To Black

Posted March 21, 2006

— Several people testified Tuesday during a State Board of Elections hearing that they gave House Speaker Jim Black money because they supported his work to protect video poker and create a state lottery.

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    But board members probing possibly illegal campaign contributions tied to the video poker industry were openly skeptical about where the money may have actually come from.

    "Was this their own money or was it somebody else giving this money as part of an organized effort?" Larry Leake, the State Board of Elections chairman, said to reporters during a break. "I find some of the stories which we've heard not to be believable."

    One of the witnesses, Barbara Gathings of Hamlet, testified she had a fixed monthly income of $1,100 and spent $20 to $25 a month playing video poker. She said she gave Black's campaign $1,000 to help ensure the industry remained legal, taking $800 from her savings and borrowing an additional $200 from her son.

    "It's just one of these things that I've done and I've regretted it ever since," Gathings said.

    Earlier Tuesday, a used-car salesman denied that he contributed to Black, despite a $1,000 money order bearing his name that ended up in the campaign's account.

    Thomas Crowley of Rockingham said Leon Johnson, the owner of a convenience store near Crowley's car lot, approached him in 2002 and asked him to sign a paper to keep video poker machines legal in North Carolina. Both the state Senate and the state sheriff's association want video poker outlawed, but Crowley said he never gave Johnson money for a donation.

    "He said, 'You don't have to pay anything,'" Crowley testified. "'You just have to put your name down.'"

    Gathings said she played video poker at Johnson's store and that they had discussed her making a campaign donation to Black.

    Johnson no longer operates the store. State elections investigators have tried unsuccessfully to serve him with a subpoena, Leake said.

    Giving campaign donations in someone else's name or using someone else's money is illegal. Investigators have not found evidence that Black's campaign knew of any illegal contributions from the video poker industry, Leake said.

    Black, D-Mecklenburg, has been the General Assembly's most influential supporter of video poker, arguing that the industry creates thousands of jobs. Going back to 2001, he is also the state's largest recipient of donations from the video poker industry, according to Democracy North Carolina.

    The hearings, which may last about three days, also should result in a decision about whether the campaign of House Speaker Jim Black may have violated the law.

    About 50 subpoenas have been issued by the board in advance of the meeting, many of them to people with connections to the video gambling business, state elections director Gary Bartlett said Monday. As many as half of the subpoenas were filed based on information uncovered since the board began its public inquiry last month, he said.

    Bartlett has confirmed a subpoena was issued for former Rep. Steve Wood, R-Guilford, but declined to say why.

    When the board met last month, a staff investigator said Black's campaign may have violated the law when Black filled in the payee line on three incomplete checks from fellow optometrists totaling $4,200. The money went to a close Black ally, then-Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth.

    "Everything we've done is within the law, and if we chose to change the law, then I'll change the way I do things," Black said.

    Evidence presented at the hearing will relate to many allegations stemming from a 2004 complaint filed by the campaign finance reform group Democracy North Carolina. That could include people within the video poker industry making anonymous contributions, using cashier checks to make donations or giving corporate money.

    "Basically it's giving in the name of another, and cash contributions," Bartlett said.

    State law prohibits cash donations of more than $100.

    Going back to 2001, Black, D-Mecklenburg, is the largest recipient of donations from the video poker industry, according to Democracy North Carolina. Black is unaware of receiving any illegal contributions from industry members, his lawyer has said.

    The video poker evidence was supposed to be presented at the board's meeting last month, but instead it spent that time discussing questionable donations from more than a dozen optometrists.

    The board asked Wake County prosecutors to consider filing criminal charges against Decker and M. Scott Edwards, a leader of the N.C. State Optometric Society political action committee. But it didn't decide whether to refer Black's campaign or the optometric group to the Wake County district attorney's office, issue civil penalties, or do neither.

    In a brief filed late Monday, Black campaign attorney John Wallace said board investigator Kim Strach wrongly interpreted the law by indicating that filling out incomplete check contributions is illegal.

    "This activity was, in fact, a completely lawful exercise, and the board should reject any suggestion that it impose (a) civil penalty or refer for prosecutor this matter," Wallace wrote about allegations that Black received more than the $4,000 allowed by law from Edwards during 2003. Wallace also filed an affidavit from former Federal Election Commission member Karl Sandstrom in support of Black's arguments.

    Black's lawyers also have said they intend to show that more than half of the $27,625 in illegal contributions to his campaign from corporations, businesses or professional organizations actually are lawful.

    Hall, who has worked closely with the elections board during this probe, said that the investigation doesn't center on Black, as last month's testimony involving optometrists showed.

    "We had been suggesting from the beginning that it's still trouble, even if it's not done by Jim Black," Hall said. "They all need to be (held) accountable, and not just the politicians."

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