RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Jim Black must return $6,800 in illegal campaign donations received by his campaign from optometrists, a Wake County Superior Court judge decided Monday, upholding an earlier ruling by the State Board of Elections.
Judge James Spencer said that Black's campaign broke the law by accepting partially completed checks. The checks were signed by individual optometrists and given to the N.C. State Optometric Society; its political action committee then passed the checks to Black, who would fill in the payee line.
Spencer did not rule on the legality of funneling along blank checks, although he called the practice "blatant gamesmanship." But he said the blank checks should have been considered contributions from the optometric society.
The organization had already reached the legal maximum for its contributions to Black -- $4,000 for both the primary and general election cycles in 2002.
"Something of value had been transferred to the PAC for use by the PAC as it felt would best serve the needs of the PAC and its constituent optometrists," Spencer wrote. "It then became PAC money and should have been reported as PAC money."
The elections board ruled in March that Black's campaign violated state campaign law by accepting the checks. Black, D-Mecklenburg, has defended the practice as legal, and several members of the optometric society have said they commonly wrote checks without filling in the payee lines.
Lawmakers voted less than a month ago to explicitly ban the practice.
Black issued a statement late Monday afternoon regarding Spencer's ruling, saying he was surprised and disappointed.
"My campaign has always reported all contributions that I have received and I have always operated within the law," Black said. "Election law experts have stated that the optometrists did nothing wrong, but the State Board of Elections and the Wake County Superior Court have a different opinion about the law as it existed at that time."
Criticism of Black intensified last week when former state Rep. Michael Decker pleaded guilty to taking $50,000 in 2003 to switch to the Democratic party and support a particular candidate for speaker. Black was the only Democratic candidate for the chamber's highest post, but his office denies any dealmaking with Decker.