State News

Former Black Ally Awaits Sentencing

Posted April 27, 2007 12:14 a.m. EDT
Updated April 27, 2007 1:40 p.m. EDT

— Federal prosecutors asked a judge Friday to show mercy when sentencing former state Rep. Michael Decker, saying his cooperation was essential in a political corruption investigation that toppled former House Speaker Jim Black.

U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III heard similar requests from defense attorneys during Decker's sentencing hearing Friday. The judge said he will announce his decision Friday afternoon.

Decker pleaded guilty to conspiracy in August, admitting he solicited and accepted $50,000 to support Black for House speaker in early 2003. Decker, a Republican, switched to the Democratic Party in a move that helped Black, D-Mecklenburg, win re-election as co-speaker. Decker later switched back to the GOP but was defeated in his re-election bid.

Defense lawyer David Freedman asked Dever to impose a sentence less than the recommended three- to four-year prison term, arguing that Decker came forward simply because he felt guilty.

"He had the fortitude to come forward and say these things because he felt it was the right thing to do and he still feels that way today," Freedman said.

Prosecutor John Stuart Bruce, along with an FBI agent who testified Friday, agreed that Decker's cooperation was a key element in proving Black gave Decker money in return for political favors. Bruce also said Decker's testimony prompted witnesses to turn on Black in the state case against him.

"Charges were possible, but we were still working on the case and nowhere near complete," Bruce said of Decker's decision to come forward in March 2006.

Decker and prosecutors say Black agreed to the $50,000 bribe, a claim Black has denied - even as he resigned his House seat in February and entered pleas to state and federal corruption charges.

Last week, federal prosecutors asked Dever to cut any prison time Decker receives by at least half, saying his cooperation was the "critical turning point" in the Black investigation.

The maximum sentence for the count is five years. Court officials suggested a sentencing range of three to four years in prison, according to documents filed by Decker's lawyers.

But Dever said earlier this month that may be too low because it doesn't take into account all the benefits Decker received for his crimes, including a $48,000-a-year state job after he left the Legislature.

Prosecutors said the information Decker provided led to Black pleading guilty to a federal crime for accepting thousands of dollars in cash from chiropractors while pushing their agenda at the General Assembly.

Decker's assistance also led to Black accepting punishment - without admitting guilt - for state charges that accused him of bribing Decker and of obstruction of justice.

"Decker substantially assisted in federal and state investigations and prosecutions of public corruption with regard to the North Carolina House of Representatives," assistant U.S. attorneys John Stuart Bruce and Dennis Duffy wrote in their filing last week.

The prosecutors said they learned in early 2004 that money may have inappropriately changed hands during the fight over the House speaker's job in 2003.

In an interview with authorities in June 2005, Decker denied that Black offered him anything to switch parties. But nine months later, Decker said he met with Black at a Salisbury restaurant in late 2002 and told Black he would support him in return for $50,000. Black agreed, according to Decker, who said he received $38,000 in campaign checks and $12,000 in cash.

"Learning this information constituted the critical turning point of the investigation," the prosecutors wrote.

Black, who was speaker for eight years, is due to be sentenced in federal court May 14.