Jim Black to Resign, Plead Guilty
(02/13/07 -- RALEIGH) -- Former State House Speaker Jim Black will resign from office and plead guilty to a federal corruption charge, The Charlotte Observer reported Tuesday night.
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 will have to resign his seat in the House representing a suburban Charlotte district.
Neither Bell nor Black immediately returned a call from The Associated Press 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.
"We have a new speaker with tremendous integrity who will move the state forward. We are moving on."
In December, the 71-year-old Black 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.
In late 2005, a federal grand jury began looking into Black's campaign finances and his connections to the lottery and video poker industries. Black's office has 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.
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.
Black had to forge an unlikely co-speakership in 2003 with GOP Rep. Richard Morgan when both parties won 60 seats in the House. Former Rep. Michael Decker pleaded guilty in August to federal charges of accepting $50,000 to join the Democratic Party that year, a move that ultimately helped Black remain speaker.
Decker is among five Black allies who have either pleaded guilty, agreed to be sentenced or were convicted of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and lobbying law violations in the past seven months. Others included Meredith Norris, Black's former political director, and former state lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings, a Black appointee.
Democratic Gov. Mike 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 prekindergarten 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.
But Black's prolific fundraising also led to trouble.
The State Board of Elections ruled in March 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.
It wasn't immediately clear if Black's deal with federal prosecutors would also resolve that issue.
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.
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