Local News

Black Testifies Before Elections Board; Decker Pleads 5th

Posted February 9, 2006 8:11 a.m. EST

— House Speaker Jim Black answered questions from elections board members for nearly two hours Thursday about possible campaign finance violations, but another state lawmaker refused to testify.


Jim Black's Testimony: | | |


Meredith Norris' Testimony


Black said his job as speaker often requires him to collect money and pass it along to other candidates, and he initially told the board it was possible that some checks he collected were incomplete without his knowledge.

Presented a few moments later with copies of some checks, he told the board the handwriting on the payee line was his, but said completing the checks and distributing them to colleagues' campaigns is not illegal.

"What we have been doing is within the law," Black said. "If the rules need to change so that nobody does (this), then we can all play by the rules."

Nearly a dozen optometrists have told the board during the past two days that they wrote incomplete checks and sent them to a leader of their industry's political action committee. Records show the payee's name and date were often added months later when the checks were passed out to legislative candidates.

Such a practice could potentially allow a committee to avoid campaign finance disclosure laws and make donations in excess of legal limits. The board has yet to decide if the practice is unlawful. Should the board conclude the practice is illegal, it can issue penalties of up to three times the amount donated, issue a public rebuke or forward potential criminal activity to prosecutors.

According to records examined by the board, some of those checks -- most for $100 -- ended up in the personal accounts or were cashed by Decker and Rep. Howard Hunter, D-Hertford.

Campaign finance records show that donations to Decker, who abandoned his party for the Democrats in early 2003, spiked about the time he switched affiliation. That switch helped Black, D-Mecklenburg, win election as co-speaker in 2003.

Decker later returned to the GOP and lost his re-election bid in 2004. Black later used state money to help fund a state job filled by Decker.

Black identified his handwriting on three checks made out to Decker's campaign, but he took special care during his testimony to tell the board that he did nothing wrong by helping raise money for Decker.

"There was nothing offered to him, nothing promised to him. He changed parties to vote for me because I'd always treated him with respect and dignity," Black said, adding later, "I did not raise any money for Mr. Decker to get him to switch parties and vote for me."

Decker declined to testify Thursday, citing his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. Hunter did not attend the hearing Thursday. He did not immediately respond to a telephone message left by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Earlier Thursday, Black's former political aide Meredith Norris, said she had never seen a check with a blank payee line given to Black, nor was she aware of that practice.

"My only knowledge is that (Black) received donations from either the PAC or from individual optometrists," she said.

The board asked Norris, Black's secretary Meredith Swindell and his campaign treasurer Virginia Kelly to review more than three dozen $100 checks from optometrists that were deposited by Black's campaign. They said they didn't recognize the handwriting on the payee line, which appeared to differ from the signatures.

Kelly acknowledged writing in Black's campaign committee as the payee after once receiving a $4,000 check from the N.C. State Optometric Society PAC in January 2003.

"Did anyone instruct you what to do or how to do that?" board chairman Larry Leake asked.

"I really don't remember, but somebody would have instructed me," Kelly said. "I wouldn't have just done it on my own."

She said she also may have filled in the names of candidates on other checks from the committee. Before Thursday, Norris had not spoken publicly since October, when her work with lottery company Scientific Games Corp. began to undergo scrutiny. Norris worked for Scientific Games last year as lawmakers debated creation of the state lottery. The company recently failed to win a contract to operate the games.

At the request of the Secretary of State's office, prosecutors are investigating whether Scientific Games, Norris, and two others violated state lobbying laws during the lottery debate. Norris' work with several lobbying firms has also apparently attracted the interest of a federal grand jury that is also examining the video poker and lottery industries.

J. Michael Burke, president of the N.C. State Optometric Society during part of 2003, defended the practice of sending incomplete checks to the committee.

"It was an acceptable, not illegal practice," Burke said, adding that it gave the donations "more of a personal touch."

The hearing was prompted by a 2004 complaint filed by Democracy North Carolina, which questioned whether donations made by the video poker industry exceeded legal limits. The board's investigation was broadened to include the campaign finances of Black and Decker, as well as the optometric society.

The hearing is expected to continue Friday, but elections board members said they expected about three more days of testimony.