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In Black's Biggest Trouble Yet, Case Referred To Prosecutors

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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — House Speaker Jim Black, one of the state's most powerful politicians and, for the past several months its most scrutinized, will face a criminal investigation into whether he or his campaign broke any state laws.

The decision Thursday by the State Board of Elections is the greatest legal trouble so far for Black, a prolific Democratic fundraiser who has managed to hang on to the speaker's post since 1999, the longest tenure of any North Carolina House speaker save one.

The probe into Black's fundraising started with a complaint about his ties to the video poker industry, but the elections board ultimately decided it was money he took from his fellow optometrists that raised the most concern.

Its four members agreed Thursday to ask the Wake County district attorney to investigate whether Black acted illegally by accepting incomplete checks from eye doctors or if he may have worked with an optometrist group to help forward similar checks to his allies.

Black has acknowledged personally filling in the name of former Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, on three of those checks worth a total of $4,200.

"I unfortunately believe -- and I use the word unfortunately because Speaker Black's career is long and illustrious -- that this matter needs to be referred to the district attorney for the district attorney to look at that issue and make those decisions," elections board chairman Larry Leake said.

The board has already decided that Black's campaign erred and ordered it to forfeit $23,675, the amount of unlawful contributions investigators say the campaign took from businesses, the video poker industry and optometrists earlier this decade. It's illegal in North Carolina for political campaigns to take corporate money.

The speaker and his attorneys argue Black, a 10-term Democrat from Mecklenburg County, didn't believe he acted illegally by accepting the optometrists' checks or failing to report that he gave them to colleagues. Such crimes would be misdemeanors in North Carolina.

"I don't believe that intent is a requirement to find a criminal violation of this law. I believe that it is the act that creates the violation," said Leake, calling this probe the most difficult since he joined the board a decade ago.

Leake also presided over hearings that ultimately led to the federal convictions of former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and several of her aides for breaking campaign fundraising laws.

Black's attorneys say the speaker will willingly return illegal video poker and corporate contributions of roughly $16,000. But lawyer Ken Bell said Black may immediately appeal the board's ruling to Wake County Superior Court.

"It has always been my belief that the fundraising activities of the optometrists were legal, and I never would have participated in or accepted any contributions had I known that the Board of Elections would misinterpret the law and the facts in this way," Black said in a statement.

The elections board also asked Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby on Thursday to start criminal inquiries into the political action committees of the North Carolina Amusement Machine Association and the N.C. State Optometric Society, along with nearly 20 people, most of whom testified before the board this week.

"They may have given less than truthful testimony to this board," Leake said near the conclusion of the three-day public hearing, the board's second in recent weeks centered around donations to Black's campaign.

The board did clear Black on Thursday of knowingly accepting possibly illegal contributions from the video poker industry, a bright spot for the beleaguered politician already involved in a federal grand jury and separate state investigations.

Black's office has given more than 3,000 pages of documents to the U.S. Attorney's Office for a grand jury that wanted information about 28 people or organizations, including Decker and many linked to the video poker and lottery industries.

Willoughby's office is already investigating possible criminal conduct by Decker and M. Scott Edwards, a leader of the optometric society political action committee. He is also looking into apparent lobbying law violations by Meredith Norris, Black's ex-political director; Kevin Geddings, a Black appointment to the state lottery commission, and a former executive for lottery vendor Scientific Games.

Until now, Black had managed to retain his political support, despite questions about those close to him.

But an ongoing criminal investigation will make it more difficult to keep Black's fragile coalition of Democrats intact or to help the party retain control of the chamber in 2007, said David McLennan, a Peace College political science professor.

"This is not a good thing for Speaker Black," McLennan said. "He loses not only his ability to lead the party during the elections ... he kind of loses his high road so to speak."

State Republican Party chairman Ferrell Blount called on Black to resign or for Democrats to remove him from office.

The bipartisan elections board would "not take such an action if they did not have significant concerns about Jim Black's conduct," Blount said in a statement.

Black's own party members Thursday were not quick to publicly condemn one of their highest-ranking leaders. Many have said they will continue to back him unless he is charged with a crime.

"I want to see now what the DA will do with this," said Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Madison. "I'm not ready to pull the trigger out until all of the facts are out."

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