Opinion: Media Mangle

Black Should Buy, Sell Building

Charlotte Observer editors don't understand separation of powers

The editorial board of The Charlotte Observer today demonstrates that they have no idea who in government is authorized to make promises on behalf of the state, and that they likely have no understanding of the principle of separation of powers.

In an editorial on the conflict between Gov. Mike Easley, who wants to sell the James K. Polk Building in Charlotte to a private developer for $5.25 million, and the General Assembly, who wants to give the building to cooking school Johnson & Wales for $1, the Observer favors the legislators.

“Though the sale price would be only a token $1,” the editors write, “the deal would save the state $2.5 million of a $10 million commitment made to the university when it consolidated its Norfolk and Charleston campuses in a new location here.” The Observer editors called the successful luring of Johnson & Wales to the Queen City a “major economic development coup.”

One problem: House Speaker Jim Black and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, who made the “$10 million commitment” on behalf of the state, had no authority to do so. The responsibility to make deals and offer resources from the state resides in the executive branch of government, not the legislative. In fact, as Carolina Journal reported in 2002, Johnson & Wales officials recognized that Black’s and Basnight’s promises carried no official obligation.

Here’s what Don Carrington wrote in November 2002:

CJ tried to speak directly with [Johnson & Wales University President] Dr. [Jack] Yena, but he did not return several phone calls. Judith Johnson, executive director of University Relations, eventually returned a call for him.

When asked whether the $10 million was essential for the move, she said, “Jack Yena has said that we would not come without the $10 million.” When asked what assurance the school had, she replied, “We believe in business by a handshake. The legal documents are being worked up.” She also said she did not know exactly where the money would come from. “We were not aware of the specifics. We felt the commitment is coming.” And what if it doesn’t? “That is a separate issue,” she said.

As of Friday, Johnson & Wales had still not contacted the N.C. Department of Commerce. Spokesman Tadd Boggs told CJ, “There is no ironclad commitment. The company has never come to us and indicated a desire to get any One North Carolina Fund money.”

So, Johnson & Wales came to Charlotte because they “believe in business by a handshake?” They “felt the commitment (was) coming?” It certainly does sound like they were willing to take the risk of coming without getting an authoritative promise in writing from the appropriate state officials.

“We do not have any incentive agreements or documents with Johnson & Wales,” Cooper Bratton, then-spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Commerce, told CJ in August 2003.

These promises made by Black and Basnight demonstrate, as in the current controversy surrounding their control of legislative slush funds, their arrogance over their right to direct pots of money wherever they darn well please without appropriate government oversight. They make promises for political supporters and pork projects alike without any legal authority to do so.

“You have my personal commitment of support for a $10 million investment over the next five years by the State of North Carolina for this project,” Black wrote to Yena in May 2002.

If it’s Black’s personal commitment, let him outbid all others for the Polk building purchase from the state, then he can sell it to Johnson & Wales for a dollar.