Local Politics

Black Pleads to Bribery, Obstruction Charges

Posted February 20, 2007 11:46 a.m. EST
Updated February 20, 2007 6:49 p.m. EST

— For the second time in a week, former House Speaker Jim Black faced a judge Tuesday and entered a plea on corruption charges.

Black entered an Alford plea to offering a bribe and obstruction of justice in connection with campaign donations received from North Carolina optometrists.

The plea allows Black to avoid admitting guilt to the felony charges while acknowledging that the state had enough evidence against him for a conviction. Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens will sentence Black later, after his May 14 federal sentencing.

Black pleaded guilty last Thursday to a federal charge of accepting cash payments from chiropractors between 2000 and 2005 in exchange for backing legislation favorable to the industry. He will be sentenced in May, when he faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Joe Sinsheimer, a longtime legislative watchdog and Black critic, said the revelations of cash payoffs and back-room deals are typical of the legislative culture in Raleigh.

"It fits a pattern that the speaker has employed for years of doling out grants, campaign money, slush fund appropriations -- all to members to retain their political support," Sinsheimer said.

Black could face another 18 to 22 months in prison on the state charges in addition to the federal sentence. But Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the state sentence could be shortened if Black cooperates with investigators trying to root out more political corruption.

"I think the investigation is ongoing. We'll see where the facts and the evidence lead," Willoughby said.

Black's plea last week resulted from a federal investigation into corruption in the General Assembly. State authorities conducted a parallel investigation that resulted in Tuesday's plea.

Kim Strach, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, testified Tuesday that the North Carolina Optometric Society PAC forwarded checks with blank payee lines to Black's campaign. Black then handed over checks totaling $12,000 to former Rep. Michael Decker, she said.

Decker switched parties days before the 2003-04 legislative session, giving Democrats to gain a 60-60 split in the state House and allowing Black to retain a share of the speaker's office.

Black testified before the Board of Elections last year that he filled in the payee lines on some checks from optometrists but that he felt the practice didn't violate any laws.

Randy Myers, assistant special agent-in-charge for the State Bureau of Investigation, testified that Decker didn't disclose receiving money from optometrists and that he deposited $4,000 in checks in his personal bank account.

At a November 2002 meeting at an International House of Pancakes in Salisbury, Decker told Black he would switch parties in exchange for $50,000, Myers testified. Black told Decker he would give the money in the form of campaign checks, Myers said.

The two men met in Black's office in early 2003, when Black handed Decker a manila envelope containing $12,000 in cash and about $37,000 in campaign checks, Myers testified. The meeting was one of several between them, including one in the spring of 2003 when Decker complained that a state job promised to his son as part of the party-switch deal didn't pay enough, Myers said.

Black handed Decker $4,000 in blank payee checks from optometrists to make up the salary difference for Decker's son, Myers said.

Strach testified that Black also solicited $46,350 in campaign donations from chiropractors, lawyers and others for Decker. Decker reported only one contribution from Black's campaign, she said.

The cash payments from chiropractors that were at the heart of the federal case against Black also were involved in the state charges.

Myers testified that Black went to Fletcher Keith, one of the chiropractors who made the payments to Black, last summer to ask him to downplay the payments to a grand jury investigating the transactions.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said in court that authorities believe part of the cash payments made by the chiropractors were turned over by Black to Decker.

Defense attorney Ken Bell said Black would deny giving any of the chiropractors' cash to Decker. Also, Bell said, Black continues to dispute the illegality of the practice of accepting campaign checks with blank payee lines.

"Mr. Decker is unworthy of belief, but if a jury were to believe the story he just laid out through (Myers), Dr. Black realizes that could lead to a conviction," Bell said.

Black, 71, was silent for most of Tuesday's court hearing, except to answer "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" to Stephens' questions.

"I would like to clearly take full responsibility of taking cash from three chiropractors," Black said in his only statement toward the end of the hearing.

After serving as House speaker for a record eight years, Black resigned his legislative seat last Wednesday to comply with a state law that bars felons from holding public office.