Local Politics

Black Resignation May Offer State House a 'Clean Break'

Posted February 14, 2007 2:27 p.m. EST
Updated February 15, 2007 12:22 a.m. EST

— In what could be just the first step in a dramatic fall from power, former North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black resigned his legislative seat on Wednesday and was expected to appear in federal court on Thursday.

Black's resignation came a day before he is expected to plead guilty to a federal corruption charge. He will plead guilty to one count of accepting illegal gratuities, a felony charge that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to Speaker Joe Hackney.

"It has been an honor and a privilege to serve in the North Carolina House of Representatives and represent the people of Mecklenburg County during the last 25 years," Black wrote in a letter to Hackney. "It is time for me to move forward with my life and attend to the health and welfare of my family."

Black was absent from the Legislative Building on Wednesday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Reading Clerk John Young read Black's four-paragraph resignation letter on the House floor. The letter referred to Black's pride in his "many accomplishments" as House speaker but made no mention of his legal troubles or the mounting criticism he has faced in recent months.

Hackney, D-Orange, and many House Democrats expressed regret at Black's departure and said they wanted to focus on his accomplishments as speaker.

"We knew Jim Black as a friend and we prefer to, most of us, to remember the good things that he did for North Carolina," Hackney said.

But Republicans said the resignation offers the House a chance to make a clean break from Black's tainted tenure.

"With this black mark on our institution, what do we do to change to fix things to restore public confidence and make sure nothing like this happens again?" said Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford.

Some lawmakers said the lesson learned from Black's demise is the danger of concentrated power and money.

"There's not as much temptation for power and greed if power and authority is diffused," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake.

Black was a prolific fundraiser, piling up scores of donations from individuals and special interests for both himself and other Democratic candidates. Observers said that was at the root of his downfall.

"This money chase is out of control," said Bob Hall, executive director of government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.

Hall filed campaign finance complaints against Black with the State Board of Elections, which led to hearings a year ago into how Black raised money from optometrists, video poker operators and other groups.

"I'm afraid the demands on him to raise millions of dollars just crunched. It took a good person and turned him into a bad person, and a crime was committed," Hall said.

The executive committee of the Mecklenburg County Democrats will have to meet to name Black's replacement. Gov. Mike Easley will then officially appoint that person to serve the rest of Black's two-year term.

Black, 71, held the House speakership for a record eight years before announcing in December that he wouldn't seek a fifth two-year term. He narrowly won re-election in November over Republican challenger Hal Jordan, a political newcomer.