Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part Carolina Journal series on the scandal that landed former House Speaker Jim Black and State Rep. Michael Decker in federal prisons. Today, Decker talks with CJ Executive Editor Don Carrington about his tragic fall.
RALEIGH — Rep. Michael Decker knew he was doing wrong, but he did it anyway because “it got easy to lie,” he said in an exclusive interview with Carolina Journal.
Decker, who must report to federal prison in September to serve a four-year term, pleaded guilty in August 2006 in federal court to crimes associated with efforts to elect Jim Black to another term as speaker of the House in 2003. Decker’s plea involved conspiracy to commit extortion, honest services mail fraud, and money laundering.
“I want people to know that I knew what I did was wrong, but I was away from the Lord, and it got easy to lie. I want people to know the shame I have brought on God, man, and my family,” Decker said. He said he couldn’t continue lying and wanted people to learn from his mistakes and the mistakes of others.
Decker’s travails began after the results of the November 2002 general election left the House with 61 Republican members and 59 Democratic members. Decker, a Republican, approached House Speaker Jim Black and agreed to accept $50,000 and other gifts in return for switching parties and supporting Black.
In January 2003 Decker said he had changed his registration to Democrat. The switch triggered a unique arrangement with Black and Republican Rep. Richard Morgan sharing the speaker’s post for two years. Later in 2003, Decker accepted an envelope containing about $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash from Black.
Black also pleaded guilty to federal crimes and started a five-year sentence in August.
Decker said he first realized he might be in legal trouble in February 2006. “I thought I could continue to lie to the grand jury because I thought I had hidden everything. Then I began to realize I had to tell the truth. I was not sleeping, was fearful, and had anxiety attacks that seemed like a heart attack. God was chasing me.”
Decker said that in March 2006 his lawyer, David Freedman, arranged for a meeting with federal prosecutors. He said he told prosecutors everything he knew. “The guilt came off my shoulders,” he said.
At sentencing, federal prosecutors argued that Decker should get substantial consideration because his cooperation was instrumental in exposing Black. The judge did not allow much credit for Decker’s assistance. “I would have preferred a lesser sentence for my cooperation, but I accepted the judge’s decision. I proposed the bribe,” Decker said.
In a state court proceeding in August, Black testified that in 1997 Decker approached him about a possible party switch in return for money. When asked about Black’s claim, Decker said he did approach Black in 1997 about possibly supporting him for speaker in return for a favor.
“What I wanted was money in the budget for certain projects,” he said. “It was not money for personal use or for campaign contributions.” Black said he did not make any deal with Decker because he thought Decker might have been wired with a recording device.
Decker said he knew what he proposed was wrong. “It was an underhanded thing to do, but I had not always gotten along with the leadership — Speaker Harold Brubaker. This began a downturn in my career.”
So were Republicans mistreating him? “No need to go into details. I was not happy with the leadership and wasn’t treated fairly. I allowed anger to get into my heart and didn’t handle it in a mature way. Greed entered in. It shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
“If I were in the Republican leadership I would want to treat people well, not some better than others. I would encourage leaders to treat all members with respect and dignity,” he said.
Decker said that legislative leaders rewarded members by handing out campaign contributions and that the unrestricted use of campaign funds for personal use can lead to corruption.
He said at the time it was legal to use the funds for personal items. Decker said he eventually listed the vehicle he purchased, as well as travel expenses paid for with campaign funds, as income for federal tax purposes.
“It would be interesting to see how many legislators used campaign funds for personal use and did not report it as income for tax purposes,” he said.
He said campaign finance is the biggest area in need of reform. Not public financing, but using campaign money only for campaigns, “not for any purpose under the sun.”
Decker still speaks kindly of Black. “In spite of all the things he has done illegally, he is a very congenial person, and easy to like. I regret all the harm I caused him. I hope things will turn around for him.”
Family and career
Decker was born in Illinois. He served in the Navy from 1962 to 1968, first as an electrician on a submarine and then on a surface vessel mapping the ocean floor to improve submarine safety.
While in the Navy he met a woman from North Carolina. They married and settled in the Winston-Salem area. They currently live in Walkertown. Using the GI Bill, he earned degrees from Piedmont Bible College and Winston-Salem State University. He taught school from 1976 through 1986 and served 10 consecutive terms in the General Assembly. Decker has three children, who are all married.
He said the ordeal has taken a toll on his family. “You don’t realize when you are doing wrong that other people are being hurt. It has been hard on them. It has been 10 times more difficult because of their suffering.”
What will prison be like? “I spent six years in the Navy and 12 weeks in boot camp. I think prison will be like boot camp,” he said. Decker will be spending his prison time at the Federal Correctional Facility in Bennettsville, S.C.
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal.