RALEIGH — A year-and-a-half after prosecutors and lawyers for Jim Black agreed to use two parcels of Mecklenburg County real estate to settle half of the former N.C. House speaker’s $1 million state fine, the property remains unsold, refueling criticism that Black got a sweetheart deal.
Black, a Matthews Democrat, was released from federal prison in October. In 2007, he entered an Alford plea to state and federal corruption and obstruction of justice charges stemming from his tenure as House Speaker between 1999 and 2006. The plea allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors might have enough evidence to convict him.
Black admitted to accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from chiropractors to push legislation favorable to them. He also pleaded guilty in state court to charges partly resulting from a $50,000 payoff to Republican state Rep. Michael Decker to switch parties, allowing Black to remain speaker.
Black was sentenced to eight to 10 months in prison, plus a $1 million fine, on state charges, and an additional 63 months in prison on federal charges. He paid the first half of the fine in cash; prosecutors allowed him to pay the second half by surrendering two parcels of undeveloped real estate located southeast of Charlotte.
But as Carolina Journal first reported last year, tax revaluations from 2003 (the most recent available) put the value of the property at about one-third of the then-outstanding debt. In May 2009, the properties were deeded over to the Wake County Public School System, as required by state law. And yet the system has been unable to sell them.
“The school system’s difficulty in selling the land reinforces the public’s disappointment with the original decision,” said Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic consultant who spearheaded efforts to oust Black from office. “It also begs the question: Why wasn’t Jim Black required to pay his $1 million fine in cash? He clearly had the resources to do that.”
Michael Evans, chief communications officer for the school district, said the system is tapping into real estate acquisition channels to sell the properties without using a typical broker. The goal is to save money by avoiding a commission charge, he said.
But the system hasn’t had much luck finding a buyer for the parcels. Evans said the system is asking around $550,00 for the parcels combined.
“To date, while there has been interest shown by two parties, no offers have been submitted to us,” Evans said.
As CJ reported, property records show that Black owns more than a dozen parcels of real estate — with a combined tax value of around $4 million — including prime commercial properties and several lots with homes at Lake Norman. He was not required to sell or take out mortgages on any of them to satisfy the final half of his fine.
Days before prosecutors and Black’s attorney finalized the deal, a real-estate appraisal firm in Charlotte estimated the parcels’ value at $613,000. The appraisal was arranged by Black’s son.
Black was scheduled to be in prison until February 2012. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons later scaled that back to April 2011. Black earned a reduced sentence by completing a drug-abuse program while in prison.
At a meeting in November, the N.C. Board of Optometry voted to restore Black’s optometry license.
Wake County school board chairman Ron Margiotta said hoped the land would sell quickly because the proceeds could be used to hire teachers. The school system faces an estimated $100 million budget shortfall.
“It certainly makes sense that we try to sell that as soon as possible, and get the highest possible price that we can for it,” Margiotta said.
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.