Local News

Black Must Keep Democrats, Public Opinion On His Side

Posted February 12, 2006 4:10 a.m. EST

— House Speaker Jim Black will tell you what he says the lawyers told him: It's not against the law to fill in the name of a political ally on an incomplete check written by a fellow optometrist.

"I based my thinking on that on legal opinions," Black told the State Board of Elections last week. "It's their opinion that that does not violate the law."

A board investigator disagrees, calling the practice illegal. And that could make it harder for Black to keep both his fellow Democrats and voters in his good graces while the board waits another month to decide for themselves if Black's campaign broke the law.

"They can certainly see that checks without payees noted, and not going for its intended purposes, is not on the up and up," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College in Raleigh. "How does he come up with an explanation for doing what average citizens would find inappropriate if they would do it?"

Black may not have to provide that explanation for at least a few weeks, until the board reconvenes sometime in March. It's only then -- after hearing testimony about apparently illegal contributions from the video poker industry -- that the board is expected to decide whether Black's campaign and the North Carolina State Optometric Society's political action committee broke state campaign finance rules.

"We have not concluded our investigation in relation to the Black committee," board chairman Larry Leake said, while adding that this doesn't mean the speaker is guilty of wrongdoing.

The wait means more negative publicity for the four-term speaker, who has been scrutinized in recent months following the creation of the state lottery and the disclosure that his former political director, Meredith Norris, worked for a New York company that stood to make millions had it won a contract to operate the lottery.

State officials have asked prosecutors to investigate Norris and two others who worked for Scientific Games Corp. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury examining the lottery and video poker industries has subpoenaed thousands of pages of records from Black's legislative office.

Last week's hearings centered on the practice, described by more than a dozen optometrists, of writing incomplete checks and sending them to Michael Scott Edwards, a leader of the optometric society'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.

At first, Black told the board he couldn't remember seeing checks with a payee's name left blank. But when presented later with a $4,000 check from Edwards, Black acknowledged that he had filled in the payee line to make it payable to the campaign of former Rep. Michael Decker. "I believe that's mine," he said of the handwriting.

The check is dated around the same time Decker switched political parties, a move that helped Black win election as co-speaker in 2003. He has repeatedly denied Decker was given financial help in exchange for his vote.

"If Michael Decker's on my team, he's the newest, very important member of my team," he said. "I don't want Michael Decker to get beat in the next election, so I'm going to help him raise funds, as I do for all the people on my team, Democrat or Republican."

Bank documents also show Decker received $3,400 in donations from other optometrists that he appeared to pocket. There was no evidence that Black knew that Decker was cashing the checks.

The board did decide Friday to refer Decker and Edwards to Wake County prosecutors. Both declined to testify to the board, citing their constitutional rights against self-incrimination.

The trouble with optometrists' checks come as the candidate filing season begins Monday for this fall's legislative elections. Black is a prolific fundraiser for fellow Democratic candidates, and he has more than $1 million in the bank.

"It continues to compromise his position as speaker and as sort of the spokesperson for the Democratic Party in the House," McLennan said. "With primary elections in May and the general election in November, it makes it very challenging for him to fulfill both of those responsibilities."

State Republican Party chairman Ferrell Blount urged House Democrats to push Black out as speaker after last week's hearings, saying testimony showed Black was involved in a "conspiracy to break North Carolina election law."

Many House Democrats have said they support the speaker and wouldn't reconsider unless he's indicted.

"I'm still waiting to hear if anything he has done (is) wrong," said Rep. Hugh Holliman, D-Davidson. "You know we're just waiting to see the process play out."

But Holliman was willing to chastise the speaker for filling in the payee lines.

"That's wrong," Holliman said.