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Black Appeals Ruling Over Blank Payee Checks From Optometrists

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RALEIGH, N.C. — House Speaker Jim Black asked a judge Tuesday to overturn a State Board of Elections decision ruling that his campaign took $6,800 in illegal donations from fellow optometrists.

In an appeal filed in Wake Superior Court, Black's lawyers asked the courts to reverse the board's decision that it was unlawful for anyone other than the donor to fill in the payee lines on checks.

"The findings and conclusions of the state board are not supported by competent evidence in the record," Black attorneys Ken Bell and John Wallace wrote in the six-page petition. There was no timetable on when the judge would rule, but the attorneys also want the court to stay the board's order pending their appeal.

The filing doesn't ask a judge to prevent the board from referring Black, D-Mecklenburg, and his campaign to the Wake County district attorney's office to consider potential criminal charges.

Nor does it seek to reverse rulings that found Black's campaign should return roughly $16,000 in illegal contributions from the video poker industry or from corporations and businesses. Black intends to forfeit that money, his lawyers have said.

After hearing more than 60 witnesses dating back to last month, the state board said it appeared Black violated the law by accepting incomplete checks from eye doctors and that he may have worked with an optometrist group to help forward similar checks to his allies. Black testified that he filled in the name of then-Rep. Michael Decker on three checks totaling $4,200.

The $6,800 in checks at issue in the petition cover donations during the 2002 election cycle that the board said exceeded the N.C. State Optometric Society Political Action Committee exceeded the $4,000 contribution limit per election.

Although state law permits groups collecting campaign funds to delay a decision on who will receive the contribution, elections board members determine that the practice uncovered among society members appears to be illegal.

Black and his lawyers say he has done nothing illegal.

Gov. Mike Easley, speaking to reporters after an unrelated event earlier Tuesday, said it appears there is some "unsettled law" on the issues of the checks. Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby likely will make a decision soon on whether to press charges, the governor said.

"So, I don't see any need to rush to judgment," he said. "Let's hear from the people who are the experts in the law and find out what they determine the case to be."

Willoughby told WRAL that he does not know, at this point, whether Black broke the law, and that he will take time to properly investigate.

"We're at the very early stages of trying to determine exactly what the Board (of Elections) has sent us and what violations they believe may have occurred," Willoughby said.

The board's ruling is one of many legal troubles for the four-term speaker. Black's office has generated more than 3,000 pages of documents for a federal grand jury examining, among other things, the video poker and lottery industries. And state prosecutors also are considering whether Meredith Norris, Black's former political director, broke lobbying laws as she worked for lottery vendor Scientific Games Corp.

Decker, Edwards, the optometry PAC and Sen. Robert Holloman, D-Hertford, have been referred to Willoughby's office for possible criminal charges.

The state Republican Party, a group representing liberal Democrats and more than a dozen newspapers have called on Black to resign as speaker. No House Democrats have said publicly that he should step down, and Black has no plans to leave the post.

"I think he's maybe guilty of some of poor judgment, but I don't see anything where he's broke the law," Rep. Bruce Goforth, D-Buncombe, said this week.

When asked if Black should step down, Easley said: "The speaker has to make that determination, as well as the caucus and the other members of the House."

While Easley said Black has been one of his top allies on education and economic development at the Legislature, "this is certainly creating a distraction, and I think for both parties."

Easley, Black and several other groups have been pushing for ethics and campaign finance reforms when the General Assembly reconvenes in May.

"I think people's confidence is shaken in the system, and we all have to work a lot harder to overcome that," he said.


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