State News

Prosecutors: Black Deserves No Break at Sentencing

Posted July 9, 2007 5:13 p.m. EDT
Updated July 10, 2007 1:28 p.m. EDT

— Former state House Speaker Jim Black provided little help when questioned by federal investigators after he admitted taking cash from chiropractors, and may have been less than honest, the government said Monday in arguing against a lenient sentence for him.

Black's request that his clean record, age and years of public service should be considered at sentencing was also challenged in a court filing by assistant U.S. attorneys John Bruce and Dennis Duffy.

They argued that Black violated campaign finance laws at least as early as 2000, that he's in good shape for a 72-year-old, and that he tainted the reputations of other elected officials.

"The defendant's corrupt conduct has done great damage to any confidence citizens of North Carolina might have in their elected officials," the filing states.

The Mecklenburg County Democrat pleaded guilty in February to one federal charge for taking thousands of dollars in cash from chiropractors while promoting their industry's agenda.

He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine at the sentencing scheduled for Wednesday. Black requested that the hearing be delayed to next month, but U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle had not ruled on the request as of Monday afternoon.

In Black's own sentencing request, attorneys Ken Bell and Jack Knight said the roughly 2 3/4 years to 3 1/2 years their client could face after sentencing guidelines are applied is still too long. The crime would have been a misdemeanor had a federal official committed similar acts, the attorneys argued, suggesting Black serve no more than one year in prison.

Better yet, they wrote, Black could remain out of prison on probation. As a part of his punishment, Black could provide eye care and glasses to indigent patients five days a week at a free clinic he would set up, using his expertise as an optometrist for the public good.

"Dr. Black violated the federal gratuities statute, as he fully admits," Bell and Knight wrote, but he "lived an exemplary life of service to his family, friends and the people of North Carolina ... before he committed this aberattional conduct."

Prosecutors said Black was questioned twice by federal investigators and attorneys, but the information he provided was of no substantial help.

"Much of what the defendant reported was already known to investigators from news accounts and other sources. Moreover, it is the government's assessment that the defendant was not completely forthcoming and truthful in the debriefing," the filing states.

Bell sought the sentencing delay last week, asking for more time to respond to a recommendation that Black be sentenced under tougher guidelines. He said a pre-sentencing report by the U.S. Probation Office suggested Black be sentenced under guidelines for someone convicted of offering or receiving a bribe.

Bruce and Duffy agreed with Bell Monday that the lesser guideline of offering or receiving a gratuity should be used. A sentence using the bribery guideline could mean several months more of prison time.

Bell also said using the bribery guideline would allow evidence to be presented in court alleging Black bribed former Rep. Michael Decker with $50,000 to switch parties in 2003, an accusation that could lead to an even longer sentence.

Government attorneys also noted Monday that Black's plea agreement included a government promise not to charge him in connection with the payment to Decker, an allegation Black has denied.

Black still faces sentencing in state court on a separate plea. He served as speaker of the state House from 1999 until January, when he resigned from the General Assembly the day before his federal plea.

Black's leniency request included excerpts of letters of support from Jim Woodward, the former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Harold Edwards, the former U.S. attorney for western North Carolina; and Black's previous patients.