Local News

N.C. House Speaker Regrets 'Mistakes In Judgment'

Posted December 15, 2005 6:40 a.m. EST

— House Speaker Jim Black acknowledged Wednesday that he made poor decisions both before and after the creation of the new state lottery, and vowed to be more cautious in the future with lobbyists, donors and colleagues.

Black said he regrets not taking more care when appointing a lottery commission member who, it was later learned, was paid to help lobby in favor of the lottery. He also said it was legal -- but "poor judgment on my part" -- to keep a former staff member as his unpaid political coordinator after she became a lobbyist.

But Black defended the Legislature's effort this year to create the lottery, saying rules were followed and lawmakers acted in accordance with the will of a majority of North Carolina's citizens.

"I have made some mistakes in judgment. If I could do some things differently, I would," said Black, D-Mecklenburg. "You learn from these things. I think I'm a better speaker and a better legislator. Every year since 1999, I've learned something."

At least two people connected to Black are under investigation for potential violations of the state law governing lobbying.

Kevin Geddings, of Charlotte, was appointed by Black to the state lottery commission, but resigned after it was revealed he failed to disclose on a state ethics filing that he received $24,500 from Scientific Games Corp., one of the nation's leading suppliers of lottery software and instant-win tickets, for work he performed this year.

Meredith Norris, Black's former unpaid political director, was also on Scientific Games' payroll and took lawmakers, including Black, for thousands of dollars in meals paid for by the company.

Neither Geddings nor Norris registered as a lobbyist with the state, and regulators believe their activities, as well as those of Scientific Games and one of its executives, broke the law.

Black repeated his assertion that Geddings never told him about his affiliation with Scientific Games before he was appointed to the commission.

He said it's possible he should have checked Geddings' background more thoroughly. He only wanted Geddings to serve one year, until his preferred candidate -- Charlotte lawyer Bob Cordle -- could leave his post with the State Board of Elections.

"I have about 300 appointments to boards and commissions (yearly), and I can't do a background check on each of them," Black said.

Rather than increase his reviews of candidates, Black said he would seek legislation creating stricter penalties for people who do not fill out ethics disclosure forms fully and accurately.

"If penalties were not something that would change people's behavior, why would we have penalties?" he said.

Of Norris, Black said her work was legal, but created a bad impression.

"In retrospect, that was a poor judgment on my part. I take full responsibility for that," he said. "That was not an illegal activity or event, but the perception of it was not good."

He said he had no recollection of discussing Geddings or specific lottery-related matters at dinners with Norris and insisted that lobbyists' efforts had no impact on the lottery's passage.

"The governor was pushing for a lottery and has been for years. The Senate had passed a lottery a couple of times. I had made it clear I had changed my position on the lottery and why," he said.

"The fact is, 70 percent of the people in the state want the lottery. ... The people want us to get on with it."

Black said the state's new lobbying law, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2007, that will tighten spending disclosure rules and increase the frequency of reporting those expenses.

He said he would impose restrictions on himself immediately as an example to other lawmakers.

"I am going to, as of today, not accept any gift, no matter how small, from any lobbyist. That means fruitcake, ham, meals, golf," he said. "Everyone, until the rules are changed, will have to decide what they are going to accept or not accept, and that's my position."

Another Black appointee, former Ingles Markets vice president Gordon Myers, stepped down over concerns that his work for the Asheville-based grocery chain would present a conflict of interest if lottery tickets are sold at the stores.

Black said Wednesday he would name a replacement for Myers when he visits Asheville on Thursday, and that person would also come from western North Carolina.