Local Politics

Black Sentenced to 63 Months in Prison

Posted July 11, 2007 11:25 a.m. EDT
Updated July 11, 2007 6:08 p.m. EDT

— Former House Speaker Jim Black was sentenced Wednesday to 63 months in prison on a federal corruption charge.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle also ordered the 72-year-old Mecklenburg County Democrat to pay a $50,000 fine and placed him on probation for three years. Black must report to prison by July 30.

Black pleaded guilty in February to accepting more than $25,000  in illegal contributions from chiropractors -- prosecutors said the payoffs were made in restaurant bathrooms -- in exchange for supporting legislation favorable to the industry.

"Today is the end of the line for Jim Black and his corruption," U.S. Attorney George Holding said at a news conference after the sentence was handed down. "He earned every day of (the sentence). ... Jim Black took corruption to a new level in North Carolina."

Black declined to comment as he left the courthouse amid a swarm of reporters and photographers.

Longtime Black critic Joe Sinsheimer said he felt the sentence fit the crime.

"I think its clear the speaker sold his office," said Sinsheimer, who filed campaign-finance complaints against Black with the State Board of Elections. "A 63-month sentence for a 72-year-old man is a heavy term, and I think it will send a powerful message."

But Park Helms, a former state lawmaker and a friend of Black's, said the prison term is too harsh.

"He was tenacious, and it was perhaps that tenaciousness that go him into trouble because he did not allow defeat to set him back," Helms said. "The Jim Black I know will not let this defeat him. He's made serious mistakes."

Black held power in the state House for a record eight years before mounting criticism and dual state and federal investigations brought him down. Before his sentencing, he apologized to family, friends and colleagues for what he called "stupid mistakes."

The federal courtroom in Raleigh was packed with onlookers, including former state Rep. Michael Decker.

Decker helped topple Black by telling federal investigators that he had been paid $50,000 in January 2003 to switch from the Republican to the Democratic party to help Black retain a share of the speaker's position.

Decker pleaded guilty last August to accepting a bribe and has been sentenced to four years in prison.

"I hate to see him have to serve that kind of time, but of course, the opposite side of that coin is when we do things that are against the law, we have to face up to that," he said.

In addition to Decker, other Black colleagues were also brought down in the swirl of investigations that eventually caught the former speaker.

  • Former lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings, who was appointed by Black, is serving four years in federal prison for trying to hide his financial ties to a lottery company.
  • Political ally Scott Edwards, the director of the state Optometric Society political action committee, pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice.
  • Meredith Norris, Black's former political director, was found guilty of violating state lobbying laws last year.

Defense attorney Ken Bell argued that a prison term for Black wouldn't serve justice, calling it a "waste of his talents." He asked Boyle to allow the optometrist to to serve his sentence on house arrest and perform community service by providing free vision exams to needy children.

But prosecutors said Black deserved a stiff sentence for abusing his position and for not helping investigators ferret out other cases of public corruption. Prosecutors also alleged the money from the chiropractors was just the tip of the iceberg of Black's illegal money trail, noting he accepted a $500,000 payment from an unidentified lobbyist in 2000.

Boyle heard from no witnesses and declined to lecture Black from the bench. But he determined the payments from chiropractors amounted to bribes, which increased the federal sentencing guidelines from earlier estimates of three years in prison.

Holding said he hopes the sentence serves as a deterrent to other public corruption, noting such crimes harm democracy.

"This corruption (was) so severe, so egregious that people not only lose faith in politicians, but lose faith in democracy itself," he said. "Why should an average, everyday citizen engage in the democratic process when a politician like Jim Black sneaks off to the bathroom and sells his office for cash?"

Black still must be sentenced on state bribery and obstruction of justice charges.

State leaders reacted with regret when they learned of Black's sentence. But they said there was no excuse for his crimes.

"I think the whole episode is unfortunate and sad, and it is a shame his career ended that way. It is a shame for North Carolina and it is just a sad day," Gov. Mike Easley said in a statement. "I am glad that we have got it behind us now and we can concentrate on the budget now so we can keep moving North Carolina forward."

House Speaker Joe Hackney, the Orange County Democrat who succeeded Black as the top lawmaker in the state House, said new regulations governing lobbying and financial reporting by legislators should correct the problems Black's dealings exposed.

“Jim Black was a valuable servant to this state for many years, but the sort of crimes he has admitted to can never be excused for a public official," Hackney said in a statement. "This prison sentence sends a strong message to all of us that neither the public nor the courts will tolerate dishonesty by their elected representatives.

"We have already put measures in place to restore confidence in our House of Representatives. I hope we are on our way to regaining the public’s trust.”