Local Politics

Judge overrules complaints about fine in Black sentencing

Posted July 16, 2009 10:55 a.m. EDT
Updated July 16, 2009 3:42 p.m. EDT

— Calling complaints about how a criminal fine was paid "idiotic," a Superior Court judge on Thursday sentenced former House Speaker Jim Black to 11 to 14 months in prison on a bribery charge.

Judge Donald Stephens said the sentence would run at the same time as the 63-month federal sentence for public corruption Black is currently serving.

Stephens withheld sentencing on the charge two years ago until Black paid off a $1 million fine imposed for a separate obstruction of justice charge.

Black paid $500,000 of the fine in cash last summer. Two months ago, Stephens signed off on an agreement to transfer the title of property owned by Black in Matthews, N.C., to settle the balance of the fine.

By law, the $1 million fine goes to the Wake County school district because that is where Black was convicted.

At least one school board member expressed opposition to using a land deal to settle the fine, but Stephens discussed the matter with a school board attorney Thursday morning and decided to proceed with imposing sentence to close out the case.

The judge said he was disappointed with the complaints, noting the school district should be pleased to get an extra $1 million.

"Criticism from those receiving the gift really kind of puts a chilling effect on judges and the courts system that are working really hard for their benefit," Stephens said. "It is not appreciated. I don't even understand it, quite frankly. In my 25 years on the bench, I have never seen anything quite like that."

Black, a 74-year-old Mecklenburg County Democrat, held the top position in the state House for a record eight years before resigning in February 2007 and pleading guilty to state and federal charges.

The bribery charge was linked to a payment to former Forsyth County Rep. Michael Decker $50,000 to switch parties in 2003 so Black could retain a share of the House speakership. The obstruction of justice charge stemmed from encouraging chiropractors to fudge when speaking to authorities about cash they had given him.

The federal corruption charge stemmed from the chiropractors' cash donations.

Black was recently moved from a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., to one in Jesup, Ga., to be closer to home. Supporters also are seeking to shorten his sentence because of his and his wife's poor health.

Stephens said Black would have to complete the state sentence even if he is released early from federal prison.

"Even if we get something worked out on the federal side, we will have more to deal with from the state," said Whit Powell, Black's attorney.