Former House Speaker Jim Black, in a plea agreement with the United States Attorney, admitted guilt in federal court yesterday to “corruptly accepting things of value concerning programs receiving federal funds.”
The Mecklenburg County Democrat, who resigned his House seat on Wednesday, accepted charges that between 2000 and 2005 he took at least $25,000 in cash from chiropractors and used the money for his personal benefit. In exchange, the U.S. Attorney said, individual chiropractors and members of the North Carolina Chiropractors Association sought legislation before the General Assembly that benefited their profession.
According to a criminal information document read in court by Assistant U.S. Attorney John Bruce before District Judge James C. Dever III, Black solicited cash payments from two unnamed chiropractors sometime between 2000 and 2002. The two chiropractors agreed to pay Black in cash instead of campaign contributions made by check, and they subsequently recruited a third chiropractor to give the Speaker cash.
Twice in 2002 the chiropractors met Black at a private dining club in Charlotte and delivered $18,000 in cash — $8,000 in February and $10,000 in December. At a February 2004 fundraiser in Concord, two of the chiropractors gave Black another $4,000 in a restaurant restroom. A third chiropractor at the same event gave the speaker a $4,000 check, payable to “Jim Black,” which Black deposited into his personal bank account.
At another fundraiser in December 2005 in Charlotte, Black received another $3,000 in cash from a chiropractor. The criminal information document said that upon completion of the transaction Black told the chiropractor, “This is just between me and you. Don’t you ever tell anybody about this.”
The U.S. Attorneys said Black did not deposit the payments in his campaign account or report them to the State Board of Elections, but instead converted them for his personal use, “intend[ing] to be rewarded in connection with the business of state government in which he participated….”
Also, when the three chiropractors were subpoenaed in August last year to testify before a grand jury, Black visited one of them, the U.S. Attorney said: “Speaker Black suggested that the three chiropractors should tell the Grand Jury that the cash payments to Speaker Black consisted of ‘a little bit of money to help [Black] with expenses along the road while [Black] was out running around the country.'”
In dozens of questions from Judge Dever that sought to determine Black’s understanding of the charges and his rights as a defendant, the former speaker answered with a series of “Yes, sirs.” He also confirmed the truth of the information outlined in the criminal information statement read by Bruce.
After more than a year of investigating Black, with public scrutiny over campaign contributions from optometrists and the video poker industry; the creation of the state lottery; the 2003 party switch by former Republican Rep. Michael Decker; and lobbying efforts by his former political director, Meredith Norris, the charges of chiropractors engaging in “pay for play” agreements with the Speaker came as a surprise to many courtroom observers.
“Now people realize why I’ve been so outspoken,” said Joe Sinsheimer, a Democrat strategist who hosted a Web site last year dedicated to Black’s ouster. “I knew the speaker was involved in unethical behavior. I’m shocked like everybody else that it was criminal behavior.”
State Rep. Pete Cunningham, a Charlotte Democrat, attended the hearing in support of the former Speaker.
“I don’t know what made him respond that he took some money,” Cunningham told reporters outside the courthouse after the hearing. “I’ve never seen that side of Jim Black. I don’t know him that way. I don’t know that he would take money.”
But Sinsheimer and others say Black’s House Democrat colleagues were willfully ignorant of the corruption plaguing the General Assembly.
“Just today,” Sinsheimer said, “in today’s [News & Observer], we have the majority leader — the new elected majority leader, the one that we’re supposed to hope is going to clean things up, Hugh Holliman [a Lexington Democrat] — saying he doesn’t think Jim Black should go to prison, that Jim Black’s never done anything wrong, never done anything for personal gain. They are in denial over there.”
“Speaker Black has hurt North Carolina by leading our state into an era of unprecedented corruption,” said state Republican Party Chairwoman Linda Daves in a statement. “His colleagues, the House Democrats, may have enabled his behavior and have benefited from the corruption over the many years he was in power. They cannot escape responsibility.”
Dever scheduled a sentencing hearing for May 14. Black, 71, could receive a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release. He will remain free on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Associate editor Mitch Kokai contributed to this report.