Black apologizes -- but still claims innocence

Staff WriterDecember 21, 2005 

Last week, House Speaker Jim Black offered a public mea culpa for his role in the startup of the state lottery and his ties to a Raleigh lobbyist who also served as his campaign's political director.

But in a radio interview Monday, Black was adamant that neither he nor his former political director, Meredith Norris, did anything wrong.

"I have not done anything illegal, absolutely not," Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, told Greenville radio station WNCT-AM.

A federal grand jury is looking into Black's ties to Norris, the creation of the state lottery, the video poker industry and the hiring of former state Rep. Michael Decker to a state Cultural Resources job. Federal investigators have not spoken publicly about the nature of their investigation.

Black told the radio station that he is not a target of the investigation.

Norris worked for lottery vendor Scientific Games while Black and other lawmakers pushed the lottery through the legislature. She did not disclose the work, saying that she did not lobby for the company. The company later reported that it reimbursed her about $3,800 for wining and dining lawmakers.

Black told the radio station that he "took the blame" for allowing Norris to lobby for the company and other clients while serving as his unpaid political director. He has said that he told her several weeks ago that she could no longer work for his campaign.

"No, she has not done anything wrong," Black said in the Monday interview. "I take the blame for that. I should have thought more of that. If I had done anything wrong, maybe I would have."

Black said Scientific Games did not hire Norris "until the lottery was passed in the House."

That's not what a Scientific Games vice president, Alan Middleton, told The News & Observer in an interview in September. Middleton said he hired Norris in January, just as the legislative session began, and two months before the House took up the lottery.

Black's press secretary, Julie Robinson, said Black might have misspoken about Norris' hiring.

"I don't think he knows the specific details of when she was hired or what she was doing," Robinson said Tuesday.

Black also said in the radio interview that he will seek a record fifth term as House speaker if he is re-elected next year.

Seeking more input on sonar

Two congressmen who represent the North Carolina coast, Republican Walter Jones and Democrat Mike McIntyre, have asked the Navy to extend by two months the time the public can comment on a sonar training range proposed off the coast.

The Navy wants to install a 660-mile range 47 miles off the coast to test sonar. But the fishing and seafood industry is worried that the testing could hurt such fish as snapper, grouper and bass.

The two congressmen said that not only does the fishing industry need more time to comment on the issue, but also further reviews are needed of scientific findings on how the sonar might affect whales and dolphins.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and three North Carolina universities plan next year to release a report on why 37 stranded whales died within 24 hours of a Navy sonar exercise.

Myrick temporarily silenced

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick of Charlotte is recovering from jaw surgery that will reduce her ability to give interviews and speeches during the next six weeks.

Myrick, a potential GOP candidate for governor in 2008, underwent bilateral temporomandibular joint reconstruction surgery Monday. The surgery is designed to address degenerative joint disease in her jaw, according to her spokesman Andy Polk.

Polk said it will be difficult for Myrick to give interviews or speeches for the next month to six weeks.

Before Congress adjourned last week, Myrick scored a victory when she got the House to adopt an amendment requiring illegal immigrants to be deported if they are convicted of drunken driving.

The measure came after a Gaston County teacher was killed after being hit by an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk.

"You drink," Myrick told the House. "You drive. You're illegal. You're deported. Period."

Kane can be reached at 829-4861 or dkane@newsobserver.com.

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