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Video Poker Leader Says Black Donations About Preserving Jobs

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RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Jim Black helped preserve jobs in the video gambling industry and the industry supported him with money for his campaigns, a trade group leader told election officials Wednesday.
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    Richard McCannell denied though that he and his fellow members of the North Carolina Amusement Machine Association had done anything wrong by collecting donations for political candidates. The State Board of Elections is investigating potential illegal contributions from industry members, many of them to Black's campaign.

    "We try to protect our jobs, and Jim Black has been helpful in that respect," McCannell said.

    Later Wednesday, Stephanie Hughes, the manager of the association's separate political action committee, acknowledged the committee had received cash contributions in excess of the $100 limit allowed under state law.

    The board will consider her testimony and committee records Thursday in determining whether the PAC or individual contributors to Black violated campaign finance laws.

    The campaign of Black, D-Mecklenburg, has been one of the state's largest recipients of donations from the video poker industry since 2001, according to Democracy North Carolina. Board chairman Larry Leake has said there has been no evidence uncovered that Black knew about any wrongdoing involving the industry donations.

    The board, however, still must decide whether Black's campaign should face civil penalties or referral to prosecutors for possible criminal charges after allegations last month involving campaign donations he received from his fellow optometrists.

    Board members Wednesday openly questioned video poker machine distributors about whether some of their donations were from money collected from their machines and whether some of that cash was funneled to convenience store owners as part of an effort to skirt donation limits.

    Giving campaign donations in someone else's name or using someone else's money is illegal, as are corporate and business donations.

    McCannell's denied ever seeing anyone from his group donate cash for Black's campaign. He said his organization did collect several money orders and cashier's checks from association members in fall 2002 to forward to Black's campaign. The sources of such contributions are difficult to trace, election officials said.

    "It's very unusual to see this many money orders and cashier's checks," said board member Lorraine Shinn. "This money has to be coming out of those machines."

    Several witnesses who have testified before the board since Tuesday said their sizable donations to Black's campaign were the first they had ever made to a political candidate. Board members were skeptical about explanations why they decided to use money orders instead of personal checks.

    Leake publicly chided McCannell at the start of his testimony for speaking during a break with two people who earlier testified about a $500 money order one of them gave to Black.

    "These two folks felt the need to inquire of you as to how they had done testifying prior to leaving this room and you had no conversation with them about what their testimony should be?" Leake asked McCannell, who said it was just small talk.

    More than a half-dozen witnesses testified Wednesday afternoon that they were asked by Black, his office or friends to make campaign donations in early 2003 to two Republican House members who considered supporting Black for speaker.

    In each case, the donations they made to then-Rep. Michael Decker of Forsyth County were deposited, but then-Rep. Steve Wood of Guilford County never received 13 checks totaling $16,100, according to evidence.

    Decker switched to the Democratic Party for a while and backed Black as sole speaker, while Wood did not. The House ultimately agreed to a coalition leadership that made Black and Rep. Richard Morgan, R-Moore, as co-speakers.

    Wood said he was not aware that fundraising was occurring on his behalf and that Black had not promised to help him raise campaign money if he supported him.

    "No one could reasonably suggest that the Speaker was trying to buy (Wood's) support," Ken Bell, a Black campaign attorney, told reporters. Black told the board last month that he didn't raise money for Decker in exchange for his support as speaker.

    Leake still didn't like the practice involving Wood's donations.

    "I'm not saying it's illegal," he said. "I'm saying it's not good policy."

    The board has already referred Decker to state prosecutors for possible criminal violations after evidence indicated he received illegal donations from optometrists and may have converted some money for his personal use.