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Decker Guilty Plea Points To Black In Alleged Scheme

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A former ally of House Speaker Jim Black pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to accept $50,000 in campaign contributions in exchange for switching his party affiliation and supporting a specific candidate for speaker in 2003.

Former Rep. Michael Decker pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to extort money from people who weren't identified by prosecutors in court. In exchange, Decker supported a particular candidate for speaker, prosecutors said.

Decker, of Forsyth County, switched from Republican to Democrat before the 2003 session. The only Democratic candidate for speaker was Black, and Decker's support of Black helped the Mecklenburg County Democrat remain co-speaker in a narrowly divided House chamber.

Black, however, wasn't mentioned by prosecutors during the hearing or in a document that detailed the charges.

U.S. District Court Judge James Dever scheduled sentencing for Nov. 1. The felony is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

"This kind of public corruption undermined our democracy and the legitimacy of legislative bodies," acting U.S. Attorney George Holding said in a statement. "Public officials must be held accountable when they take official action for private financial gain."

Decker declined comment as he left the federal courthouse Tuesday, but his attorney, David Freeman, did say that Decker "felt horrible about what he had done, and he felt like he needed to come forth and be truthful with the U.S. Attorney's Office."

After the 2002 elections, Decker solicited money and other things of value to switch parties, prosecutors said. Assistant U.S. attorney John Stuart Bruce said the government had evidence showing that Decker met with a Democratic member of the House -- unidentified by prosecutors -- in Salisbury before the start of the 2003 session.

Black's own public comments and published reports put the speaker himself at that meeting. During State Board of Elections hearings in February, Black readily admitted he worked to raise money for Decker, but "I want to right here, right now, under oath, tell you that I never gave Michael Decker anything to change parties or to vote for me or for any other political purpose," Black testified.

Decker solicited and agreed to accept $50,000 in campaign contributions for switching parties, and received one full-time staff member for that session as part of the deal, Bruce said.

Decker received $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash, some of which he converted to his personal use, Bruce said.

After Decker left office following his defeat in the 2004 primary, Decker's campaign received a $4,000 check from Black's campaign, according to campaign finance reports. Decker closed the account and converted the money for his personal use, Bruce said.

"The bribery and fraud alleged in today's guilty plea undercut the foundation of our representative government," said North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. "We will continue to investigate these and other related matters with the U.S. Attorney and the Wake (County) District Attorney."

Late Tuesday afternoon, Black's attorney Ken Bell released a statement on behalf of his client saying Black vehemently denies that he gave or offered anything to Decker in exchange for his vote.

"Many witnesses are able to testify that Decker decided all on his own to vote for Dr. Black as Speaker in 2003 because Decker's party insulted him and Decker despised his party's leaders."

Bell continued, saying:

"Speaker Black neither gave, promised nor offered Decker anything for his vote. After Decker told the Speaker he intended to vote for him, the Speaker offered to help Decker raise funds for what was sure to be a tough re-election campaign, just as he would have done for any member of his caucus. If Decker is telling the government anything other than this, he is not telling the truth."

Black's attorneys were in Wake County court Tuesday attempting to reverse a state Board of Elections ruling that found Black's campaign had accepted $6,800 in unlawful contributions from his fellow optometrists. The judge hearing the arguments did not issue an immediate ruling in the case.

For the past several years, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh has focused on investigating public corruption. Many of the people who have testified before a federal grand jury in the past several months have ties to Black, who has said repeatedly he is not a target of a federal investigation.

Last fall, subpoenas sent to Black's office sought information about contact he and his staff may have had with 28 different groups, many connected to the video poker industry and the newly created state lottery, along with Decker and one of Black's former political aides.

In May, federal prosecutors indicted a former North Carolina lottery commissioner, accusing him of failing to disclose as required payments he received for work performed for a lottery contractor. Black had appointed Kevin Geddings to the commission, but said he knew nothing about his ties to the contractor.



Cullen Browder, Reporter
Gil Hollingsworth, Photographer
Kelly Gardner, Web Editor

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