Witnesses with ties to Black testify

A federal grand jury probes jobs the House speaker helped create

Staff WritersDecember 22, 2005 

Several people involved in two state jobs that House Speaker Jim Black helped create visited a federal grand jury Wednesday.

The witnesses included Black's protege in the House, Rep. Jim Harrell, who said he testified for about an hour; state Cultural Resources Secretary Lisbeth "Libba" Evans; and one of the recipients of the two jobs, Helen Ruth Almond.

"I was solely there as a witness," said Harrell, a two-term Democrat from Surry County. "I'm 100 percent cooperative."

The other witnesses declined to comment. All spent several hours in the federal building in Raleigh, but for most of them it was unclear whether they actually testified.

Grand jury proceedings are not open to the public and federal authorities say they are prohibited from talking about a grand jury's work. But subpoenas released in October by Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, show they are gathering evidence regarding his involvement with the creation of a state lottery; the work of lobbyist Meredith Norris, until recently Black's unpaid political director; the video poker industry; and former Rep. Michael Decker, whose switch to the Democratic Party just before the 2003 session helped Black retain the speakership.

Black and his attorney say the four-term speaker is not a target of the federal probe.

Decker lost his bid for re-election after his party switch. In February, Evans' department hired Decker for a tourism development job that Black helped create. Black used $45,000 from a reserve fund in the 2004 state budget to pay for the job. It was supposed to end June 30, but the department found federal funds to keep Decker on the payroll.

Subpoenas released by Evans' department on Wednesday show that she and two other Cultural Resources officials were called to testify this week. The other two are John Beaver, whom the department identifies as the supervisor of the Western Office of Archives and History, and department spokesman Joe Newberry.

E-mail correspondence from the Charlotte Regional Partnership, one of seven regional economic development partnerships in North Carolina, also indicates that Black helped create another tourism job in the state Commerce Department in last year's budget that went to Mrs. Almond.

Her husband, Michael Almond, was the Charlotte partnership's president until he retired in June and took a position at Appalachian State University. Norris was a lobbyist and administrative aide to the partnerships, and Mr. Almond played a key role in persuading the partnerships to hire her in 2003.

The correspondence between Norris, Mrs. Almond and her husband show that Norris, Black and Harrell worked to help Mrs. Almond win the $39,000-a-year job. The previous year, Black lobbied UNC-Chapel Hill officials to help Mr. Almond's son gain admission.

Since 2003, the Almonds have contributed $6,500 to Black's campaign and Mr. Almond allowed Black to use the Charlotte partnership's headquarters for political campaign meetings. The Almonds have said in previous interviews that they helped Black because they believed in his political vision for the state.

Partnership correspondence also shows that Harrell helped them with their legislative agenda. He has called Norris a friend, and traveled with Black and Norris to a state legislative conference in Michigan last year.

On Wednesday, federal authorities also called back Jeanne Bonds, ElectriCities' director for political action and communications. But David Long, the attorney for ElectriCities, said authorities again did not ask her to testify. She has made three visits to the grand jury without testifying, Long said.

Bonds hired Norris in April to lobby lawmakers on behalf of ElectriCities.

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

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