On Valentines Day, optometrist Jim Black resigned as Speaker of the House in the North Carolina legislature amid a maelstrom of legal controversy. The next day in federal court, he pleaded guilty to accepting more than $25,000 from three chiropractors to push legislation in their favor. He put the money into his personal account, not a campaign account.

The next week, in a separate hearing of the state superior court, Dr. Black pleaded guilty to giving former Rep. Michael Decker a $50,000 bribe. According to prosecutors, Dr. Black offered the bribe to get Rep. Decker to switch parties from Republican to Democrata maneuver that would tip the legislatures vote in favor of Dr. Black, a Democrat, and enable him to keep his position as house speaker.

The people of North Carolina entrusted Speaker Black with responsibility and power, said U.S. Attorney George Holding after the state hearing. In return, Speaker Black prostituted his office.

The deal, which Dr. Black and Rep. Decker struck in early 2003 in the bathroom of an International House of Pancakes, was paid in part with several thousand dollars worth of checks from the North Carolina State Optometric Societys political action committee (PAC). Rep. Decker cashed the checks and kept the money for himself.

In February 2006, a grand jury began investigating contributions given to Dr. Black that were tied to a newly passed lottery law and contributions made by optometrists through the PAC. They gave checks to the PAC, but these checks only included the amount and signature; the payee name was filled in when the checks were given to legislative candidates, the grand jury found. An election board investigator said that this contribution method violated state law. At that time, Dr. Black denied that the practice was illegal. The elections board said this contribution method allowed the PAC to get around campaign donation limits.

More recently, optometrist M. Scott Edwards, former treasurer of the PAC and a political ally of Dr. Black, pleaded guilty on February 6 to obstruction of justice. Dr. Edwards attorneys said that he thought the practice of passing undesignated checks was legal, since it was being done before he started as the PAC treasurer. The court sentenced Dr. Edwards to up to 100 hours of community service, a $10,000 fine to repay the State Board of Elections for its investigation costs, and up to two years of supervised probation.

They both pleaded guilty to state violations, but neither Dr. Edwards nor Dr. Black admitted to crime. Both entered an Alford plea, which allows defendants to acknowledge that the evidence could result in their conviction, but doesnt require them to admit guilt. Dr. Black admitted to a criminal offense in his guilty plea in federal court for accepting money from the chiropractors. His plea requires him to cooperate with state and federal investigators in the continuing investigation.

Dr. Black was released without bail. He wont be sentenced in state court until after his federal sentencing hearing, which is set for May 14. For the federal conviction, he could receive a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years of supervised release. Legal experts told the Charlotte Observer that hes likely to receive a minimum-security prison sentence of at least a couple years. For the two state convictions, Dr. Black faces anywhere from probation to 22 months in prison.

Vol. No: 144:03Issue: 3/15/2007