RALEIGH, N.C. — Democrats kept a wait-and-see attitude about the political future of House Speaker Jim Black on Wednesday, a day after a former political ally admitted taking $50,000 to switch parties three years ago in a move that allowed Black to remain in power.
But the state's top Democrat, Gov. Mike Easley, didn't mince words when asked about the guilty plea of ex-Rep. Michael Decker and his ties to Black, although the two-term governor also declined to say if the speaker should resign.
"It's a blight on the state," Easley said. "There's no need to pretend that it's not. I commend the prosecutors for moving aggressively, moving rapidly, and I hope more information comes out sooner rather than later, (and) we get to the bottom of it and the truth comes out."
Decker, 61, of Forsyth County, pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion, mail fraud and money laundering. He acknowledged seeking money and other benefits before the 2003 legislative session in exchange for leaving the Republican Party and supporting "a certain Democratic member" for speaker.
Prosecutors didn't name the particular candidate Decker supported, but Black was the only Democratic running for speaker in 2003.
"I don't know to what extent the speaker's involved," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson, and a House minority whip. "The speaker's attorney said he didn't do it. To me, it's hard to make a call there."
A 10-term legislator aligned for years with Christian conservatives, Decker turned a one-vote Republican majority into a 60-60 tie when he joined with Democrats in 2003, allowing Black to share power with his GOP counterpart in the House chamber. Black regained the speaker's job outright after the 2004 elections.
Black told the state Board of Elections in February that never promised money to Decker in exchange for his vote for speaker and that he was only trying to build support for a new member of his political team. Black's attorney has suggested Decker is lying in order to hide his own mistakes, including taking his money meant for his campaign account.
"There was nothing offered to him, nothing promised to him," said Black to the board.
However, Black conceded during the hearing that he might have handed Decker some of what he considered legal contributions.
"They might have been given to me in an envelope with his name on it," he said.
According to prosecutors, Decker and another Republican House member met twice with a Democratic member of the House in Salisbury. The person with whom Decker struck the deal later gave Decker an envelope containing about $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash, prosecutors said.
Neither prosecutors nor Decker's attorney will identify who agreed to provide the money and other benefits that Decker acknowledged receiving, but the focus has been on Black, a four-term speaker who hasn't been charged with any crimes.
"The legal system is having to play itself out," said Rep. Alice Underhill, D-Craven, one of the few House Democrats who called on Black to resign as speaker in April, after the elections board concluded Black's campaign had violated campaign finance laws.
Black may "have an opportunity to testify in his own behalf," Underhill said, adding that his attorneys "have another side of the story."
Rep. Bill Faison, D-Caswell, called Decker's actions "despicable." After being a vocal defender of Black in recent months, Faison said the landscape has changed.
"It looks to me like it's a path that will lead to Jim Black, which is a very sad thing if true because of all the good things he's done," he said.
Tuesday's plea could diminish an otherwise successful legislative session this year for House Democrats, a session they designed to help take the focus off Black's troubles heading into the November elections.
The Democrats, who hold a 63-57 advantage in the chamber, pushed through ethics and lobbying reform, tougher restrictions on convicted sex offenders and a budget that boosted spending for education while also cutting taxes.
But the GOP now has a new reason to focus their campaign rhetoric on Black, said Thad Beyle, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"They're going to be in a tough position because their opponents are going to wrap it right around their necks," Beyle said. "They're going to definitely go right after him."