Local News

State Board Of Elections To Hold Inquiry Linked To House Speaker

Posted January 27, 2006 8:59 a.m. EST

— The state Board of Elections is drafting subpoenas for an inquiry into campaign contributions from the video poker industry and optometrists. House Speaker Jim Black expected to get one of those subpoenas.

The board is working quickly to serve the subpoenas, because the investigative hearings start in 1 1/2 weeks. Their goal: piecing together where illegal money came from and where it went.

The subpoena list is not yet public, but elections board staffers expect to call more than 40 people to testify at the February hearings. Since his political committee is part of the investigation, it's widely anticipated Black will be subpoenaed to discuss his fundraising under oath.

In addition to Black, the board will probably call contributors from the video poker and optometry industries. Black is an optometrist. Some of the questionable contributions went to former lawmaker Michael Decker, a Black ally. He's also a likely candidate to be called.

"It looked very much like a conspiracy to put illegal money into Jim Black's campaign," said Bob Hall of the government watchdog group Democracy North Carolina.

Hall helped launch the Board of Elections investigation when he tracked more than $100,000 in contributions from the video poker industry to the speaker and Decker. Both voted to block a ban on video poker.

"We are very sure that there are donors or interests that are putting money illegally, laundering money, business money, exceeding the contribution, using fake names," said Hall.

"I think he's innocent until proven guilty," said Democratic political consultant Thomas Mills.

Mills believes Black is wounded by perception, but not necessarily the facts. He says the speaker has proven to be a resilient politician.

"He's got a lot of people indebted to him and has done a good job as speaker," said Mills. "So, I don't see people running away. I'm not hearing anything about any sort of coup d'etat."

Sitting before the Board of Elections may strain that support. Hall pointed out a politician is not held liable under state law unless he knowingly accepts dirty money. He has no proof Black ever did. Again, perception is another issue.

"The perception is that politics is for sale and politicians are for sale," said Hall.

The board hearings are supposed to last three days. Black has said he has no idea what the board is looking for, but he will cooperate.