"I thought he was a person of real truth," said Rep. Russell Capps, R-Wake, who was like-minded with Decker on many issues. "It just seems so out of character for the man I used to know. I'm still puzzled with why in the world he allowed this to happen."
Federal prosecutors suggested Decker's financial troubles led him to solicit money and other benefits to quit the Republican Party in 2003, a move that helped Speaker Jim Black remain in power.
But others believe the blame should rest on a campaign finance system they consider broken, one that requires legislative leaders such as Black to raise money to maintain political control, with much coming from lobbyists looking for access.
"Black wanted to keep himself in power," said Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic Party consultant who is now an active Black critic. "He wanted to keep the Democrats in power. There is this corrosive impact of money in politics right now."
Black has not been charged with any crime and wasn't named in court last week, but is clearly a key figure in prosecutor's ongoing investigation. Earlier this year, a federal grand jury sought documents from Black's office about Decker and more than two dozen other people or organizations.
Black's office confirmed the speaker met with Decker in late 2002 at a Salisbury restaurant, but his attorney says Black never agreed to give Decker money in exchange for his support. "If Decker is telling the government anything other than this, he is not telling the truth," attorney Ken Bell said.
Prosecutors said Decker met twice with a "Democratic member of the House" in Salisbury before the 2003 legislative session, and was later given an envelope containing about $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash. That person hasn't been identified, although Decker began talking with prosecutors months ago and is willing to testify on the government's behalf pending a Nov. 1 sentencing date.
Decker pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge, which suggests prosecutors believe at least one other person broke the law. But prosecutors could have a tough time making such a connection without some kind of corroborating evidence, said former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce.
"The government would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant ... knowingly and willfully entered into that agreement," said Boyce, now in private practice in Raleigh. "It would have to prove that there was an agreement of an exchange, of these checks and this cash in exchange for certain votes and changing parties."
Whatever the legal outcome, there is sure to be more hand-wringing in Raleigh next year among lawmakers over how to reduce the link between campaign money and political power.
This year, legislators approved several campaign finance, ethics and lobbying reform bills before they adjourned. They made illegal the conversion of campaign funds to personal use -- prosecutors said Decker spent some of the $50,000 he received to travel to Florida and buy a used car -- and barred lobbyists from collecting donations on behalf of a candidate.
During an elections board hearing in February, lobbyist Sandy Sands testified that he had been raising money for Decker from members at his law firm, but he didn't say who asked him to do so. Sands said he forwarded $2,500 in contributions to Black.
"Under the new law, that collecting, bundling and delivering would be banned," said Bob Hall, research director for the campaign finance reform group North Carolina.
Hall said lawmakers failed to close a loophole by keeping out a provision barring lobbyists from soliciting campaign donations for a candidate, but overall the changes are an improvement.
"The changes are going to be more significant and profound then what people think," said House Majority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, who shepherded most of the reform bills through the chamber.
Other ideas that failed to take hold could be revived in 2007. They include public financing of some legislative campaigns and removing a provision that allows candidate committees to avoid the $4,000 donation limit by donating to political parties. The parties, in turn, can give out unlimited money to a candidate in need of assistance.
"This is just creating a better incentive for people to play by a better set of rules," Hall said.
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