RALEIGH, N.C. — A former legislator testified Wednesday that House Speaker Jim Black was a "co-conspirator" in a scheme to pay the lawmaker $50,000 to switch party affiliations -- a move that helped Black remain chamber leader in 2003.
Michael Decker, a former Forsyth County representative, made the comment under oath during a federal court hearing to consider a potential conflict of interest in his case. Decker is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty in August to one count of conspiracy.
Conspiracy Testimony Adds To Bad News For House SpeakerBlack Responds To New Conspiracy Accusations
The statement was the first in open court to identify Black by name for possible involvement in the conspiracy. Black has not been charged with any crime.
Black vehemently denied Decker's allegation in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
"I never gave, promised or offered anything to Michael Decker to get him to switch parties or for his vote, and I'm appalled that he said something different today," he said. "He was asked numerous times by reporters and people in his district in 2003 and 2004 why he switched parties and why he supported me for speaker, and it's unfortunate that he's saying something totally different and completely untrue now."
Ken Bell, Black's attorney, said in the statement that Decker switched sides three years ago "because the Republican Party insulted him and Decker despised his party's leaders." After Decker put his support behind Black, Bell said, Black "offered to help Decker raise funds for what was sure to be a tough re-election campaign, just as he would do for any member of his caucus."
U.S. District Judge James Dever wanted to make sure Decker's attorney had no conflict of interest in the case because Black's campaign paid the initial $5,000 retainer when Decker hired an attorney to represent him last year.
"Was one of your co-conspirators Speaker Jim Black?" Dever asked Decker.
"Yes, your honor," Decker responded.
The judge eventually ruled Decker's attorney, David Freedman, has no conflict of interest and that his sole duty is to Decker.
Other details about the conspiracy weren't discussed during the half-hour hearing, and Freedman declined to discuss Black's role in the case.
"I'm not in a position to comment. This is an ongoing investigation. The government has asked us not to comment," Freedman said.
Decker acknowledged in his plea that he solicited and took $50,000 in campaign contributions and cash to switch from the Republican Party to the Democrats in 2003. The switch gave Black, D-Mecklenburg, leverage to remain co-speaker with Republican Rep. Richard Morgan during the 2003-04 session.
After the court hearing, Decker offered an apology -- to voters, not Black.
"I really have heartfelt sorrow for what I did, and I hope the public will forgive me for my misdeed and my wrong actions," he said.
Wake County Democratic Party headquarters had no comment about Decker's testimony Wednesday, but it appears that Black's hold on power, if he's re-elected, has taken another hit.
"There's already been several people who have openly expressed an interest in the speakership," said Rep. Linda Coleman, D-Wake. [Duration:0:05]
Joe Sinsheimer is the man behind the Jimblackmustgo.com Web site that he took down just days ago. He said he's made his point and that Decker's comments back that up.
"I think it was devastating for our state and the continuous dark cloud that has hung over the legislature for the past year," Sinsheimer said. "I think's there's a possibility Black could lose next Tuesday."
Decker's testimony has added to the onslaught of bad news for Black. Less than a week before Election Day, his hometown paper,
The Charlotte Observer
, endorsed his Republican opponent, Hal Jordan.
"There's finally someone to testify against Jim Black," state GOP chairman Ferrell Blount said in Charlotte while campaigning for Jordan. "It appears to me that Jim Black is pretty smart in holding his money back for his legal defense fund, because it's hard to serve in Raleigh and in prison at the same time."
Black's campaign finance report, which was released Wednesday, shows he spent $915,000 of his campaign money during the third quarter for his legal defense and $50,000 on his re-election campaign.
Black has said many times he deserves the best legal advice possible.