Former House Speaker Black To Resign, Plead Guilty
Posted February 13, 2007 9:53 p.m. EST
Updated February 14, 2007 7:15 a.m. EST
The newspaper said on its Web site that Black's attorney, Ken Bell, confirmed that Black will plead guilty on Thursday to one count of accepting illegal gratuities. The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
"Since somebody is talking who shouldn't have and has leaked what's happened, I will confirm that Dr. Black will enter a guilty plea to accepting illegal gratuities in federal court on Thursday," Bell said.
Because state law bans felons from holding office, Black, D-Mecklenburg, will have to resign his seat in the House representing the state's 100th District.
Neither Bell nor Black immediately returned calls from WRAL seeking comment.
"The speaker has to do what he thinks is appropriate," said Democratic Party chief Jerry Meek after learning of the newspaper's report. "He's the one that knows all the facts. It's unfortunate that someone whose given so much for the state has to come to an end like this."
If Black resigns, the executive committee of the Mecklenburg County Democrats will meet to name a replacement. Gov. Mike Easley will then officially appoint that person to the House seat.
Changes Began Last Year
In December, Black, 71, announced he would not seek a fifth term as speaker, giving up a post that made the eye doctor from Matthews one of the most powerful members of North Carolina's state government.
At the time, he said he did not plan to step down and dismissed a suggestion he wasn't running again for the chambers top post because he was worried about a possible federal indictment.
"I have no more reason to think today that I'll be indicted than I did a year ago," Black said on Dec. 12.
Black first came under scrutiny in late 2005, when a federal grand jury began looking into his campaign finances and his connections to the lottery and video poker industries.
Black's office provided thousands of pages of documents to grand jurors, and dozens of lobbyists, political allies and others with ties to Black or his campaign have appeared at the federal courthouse.
Many confirmed they were asked to testify before the grand jury, even as Bell said repeatedly that Black was not the target of a federal investigation.
In March 2006, the state Board of Elections ruled that Black's campaign illegally accepted corporate contributions and checks with the payee line left blank. His campaign later forfeited at least $16,875 in contributions, and the board asked state prosecutors to decide whether Black should be charged criminally with breaking state campaign finance laws.
Since then, a number of people with close political ties to Black have been charged and have either accepted a plea or found guilty of wrongdoing.
In August, Black's former political director, Meredith Norris, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor lobbying violation charge. Investigators said Norris worked as a paid lobbyist for lottery company Scientific Games Corp., but failed to register with the state.
Former Rep. Michael Decker, R-Forsyth, also pleaded guilty in August to federal charges of accepting $50,000 to join the Democratic Party in 2003, a move that ultimately helped Black remain speaker. Three months after the plea, Decker named Black a co-conspirator in the plan.
In October, former state lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings, whom Black had named to the post, was convicted of federal mail fraud charges. The verdicts came after testimony from Gov. Mike Easley, Black and other state lawmakers.
Former Speaker Pro Tem Richard Morgan, a Republican, in November, released a subpoena that ordered him to appear before the federal grand jury. Black had to forge an unlikely co-speakership in 2003 with Morgan when each party won 60 seats in the House.
Most recently, on Feb. 6, M. Scott Edwards of Murfreesboro, a political ally of Black, reached a deal with prosecutors to be sentenced for felony obstruction of justice in exchange for not going to jail.
Prosecutors had charged Edwards with four counts of perjury, accusing him of lying on campaign finance reports filed while he was treasurer of the North Carolina State Optometric Society's Political Action Committee in 2002 and 2003.
Longtime Power Player in the House
First elected to the House in 1980, Black lost a bid for re-election in 1984. He returned to Raleigh in 1991, and won his first race for speaker eight years later by a single vote.
Easley, the state's chief executive during most of Black's tenure as speaker, relied on Black to help get his signature elements of his education policy through the chamber, including class-size reduction in early grades and the More at Four pre-kindergarten program.
Black was a master vote-counter, getting the lottery bill Easley also wanted through the House by just two votes in 2005 and passing that year's final budget through successive votes of 61-59 and 60-59.
A successful fundraiser who maintained an open door for colleagues so they could share their concerns, Black spent his eight years as speaker trying to manage a narrow majority made fragile by dissident members from the party's liberal wing.
In November, Black ended Election Day up by just seven votes in his heavily Democratic district after political newcomer Hal Jordan made Black's troubles the focus of his campaign.
After all provisional ballots were counted, Black wound up winning by just 30 votes out of more than 10,000 cast.