Local News

Black Says He's Not Worried About Grand Jury Proceedings

Posted July 19, 2006

— A federal grand jury investigation into political influence reached a new level on Wednesday as House Speaker Jim Black's former political aide and his roommate were called to federal court.

Despite the close links to him, Black said he was not worried.

"I don't have any idea what the grand jury's doing," Black said. "I have no concern about what they're doing because I haven't done anything wrong."

As she walked into a federal courthouse on Wednesday, Black's former political aide, Meredith Norris, declined to say whether she would appear before the grand jury, which is investigating Black's campaign finances, as well as the state's video poker industry.

"We don't have any comment," said Thomas Walker, Norris' attorney, as he escorted her into the Terry Sanford Federal Building in downtown Raleigh. She left the courthouse about three hours later at noon.

Federal prosecutors have not detailed their probe and grand jury sessions are not open to the public. But grand jury subpoenas issued to Black's office last fall sought communications and information on political contributions connected to the video poker and lottery industries.

The subpoenas also sought documents related to trips, dinners and donations received by 28 individuals or organizations, or Black and his staff, from anyone seeking to influence legislation at the General Assembly.

Norris once worked in Black's legislative office and continued to work as his unpaid political director until late last summer. She had worked as a lobbyist for several clients while working as Black's political director.

"This is a whole new ballgame," former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce told WRAL. "This is in the federal arena where the stakes are much higher."

Boyce said the grand jury could have wanted any number of pieces of information from Norris, including information on political deals. If there is a chance she is criminally liable, Boyce said prosecutors could pose a plea deal to go after others involved in the alleged violations.

"She wouldn't be called to the grand jury for the heck of it," Boyce said. "It's a very serious part of the investigation."

Many of the people who have testified before the grand jury over the past several months have ties to Black, D-Mecklenburg, who has said repeatedly he is not a target of a federal investigation. Later Wednesday, Bill Culpepper, a former chairman of the House Rules Committee and a Black lieutenant, also entered the courthouse. He also shares a Raleigh apartment with the Speaker.

"He will testify and he will do so truthfully," said his attorney, Joseph Cheshire, who added Culpepper was a witness and not a target of the investigation. Culpepper left the General Assembly in January after being appointed to the state Utilities Commission.

In May, state prosecutors charged Norris, former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings, who was appointed by Black, and another man with failing to register as lobbyists in North Carolina. Those misdemeanor charges, which stemmed from Norris' work for lottery contractor Scientific Games Corp. during last year's debate over creation of the state lottery, are pending.

That same month, a federal grand jury indicted Geddings on five counts of mail fraud and four counts of wire fraud, accusing him of failing to report his work with Scientific Games on a financial disclosure form required of state appointees.

Geddings, 41, resigned from the lottery commission after his work with Scientific Games became public. His trial is scheduled to begin next month.

Black has said he never would have appointed Geddings had he known about his connections to the company.

Scientific Games, a leading supplier of scratch-off instant-win lottery tickets, later failed to win a piece of North Carolina's lottery business.

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