Democrat Bill Faison, the only state representative from Orange County who’s not from Chapel Hill, says he does not consider himself an intentional defender of House Speaker Jim Black, who is the subject of a federal investigation into his relationship with former political and legislative aide, and lobbyist, Meredith Norris.
But because media organizations (including Carolina Journal) came calling in search of someone with doubts about the motives of Joe Sinsheimer, the former Democratic consultant who started a website calling for Black’s resignation as speaker, Faison stepped forward.
“I don’t perceive my role as a role out to defend Black,” Faison said in an interview. “I have views and I have observations and I have opinions, and I don’t mind sharing those. If that ends up defending or is perceived as a defense of his position, I view that as incidental and not primary.”
Faison acknowledged problems with the appearance of Black’s relationship with Norris, and her simultaneous roles as a lobbyist and as the speaker’s political consultant and legislative worker, which Faison said “looks bad.” He said he thinks the speaker recognized that and took away her political job.
“It appears to me to have a conflict of interest,” Faison said. “I’m glad the action [to remove Norris] has been taken.”
He also said Norris’s failure to disclose her lobbying role for lottery vendor Scientific Games was a problem.
“I don’t know what she concealed, but you know, I don’t understand why she didn’t register as a lobbyist, because it’s easy enough to do,” Faison said. “It seems like that would have resolved all the issues surrounding her relationship to Scientific Games.”
Black appointed Kevin Geddings, who had also done work for Scientific Games, to the N.C. Lottery Commission. Geddings has since resigned from the commission, which Faison said was “appropriate.” He said because he’s not part of the legislative group that make up Black’s “inner circle,” he doesn’t know whether the speaker knew beforehand about Geddings’ role with the lottery vendor.
As for the state job Black got for former state Rep. Michael Decker, who switched political parties in 2003 to help elect Black as co-speaker, Faison said political patronage exists all over government.
“There are lots of political patronage jobs around, including the U.S. attorneys’ positions,” Faison said. “If we say that political patronage jobs are bad, then you’ve got to restructure a whole system.”
But Faison, who was first elected in 2004, pleaded ignorance about the details behind legislative “slush funds” controlled by Black, former Co-speaker Richard Morgan, and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight. Black used part of the money he controlled to create the job for Decker, which has raised questions about separation-of-powers issues between the legislative and executive branches of the state government.
“If there are things that are wrong,” Faison said, “if there are things that violate the rules and regulations by which we all operate, then they ought to be changed and they ought to be fixed.”
As for Sinsheimer and his website,www.jimblackmustgo.com, Faison said, “It’s America. Free speech exists everywhere.” But he said he was skeptical about some of the information Sinsheimer has publicized, including a claim that Black is a “political bully.” Faison called that accusation “over the top” and “fundamentally false.”
Faison was the only Democrat who failed to support this year’s budget bill, and he said if Black was actually a “bully,” he would have been the one pressured by the speaker.
“It didn’t happen to me,” Faison said. “I haven’t heard anyone come to me and say ‘that happened to me.'”
Faison questioned Sinsheimer’s motives, and said he wondered whether anyone else is behind the website, which Sinsheimer said has cost him only $160 to run. He said Sinsheimer’s background as a political campaign opposition researcher, whom Faison said typically look for misstatement or overstatement to use against rivals, could be helping drive his passionate campaign against Black.
Paul Chesser is associate editor of Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected]. Associate publisher Don Carrington contributed reporting for this article.