DA trusted to 'do the right thing'

Colon Willoughby, a Democrat, will investigate and may prosecute party peer Speaker Jim Black

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2006 

Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby prosecuted fellow Democrat Meg Scott Phipps.

STAFF PHOTO BY LISA LAUCK

Democrats are worried and Republicans are hopeful about the fallout from the campaign finance investigation of state House Speaker Jim Black. But regardless of party affiliation, they say they trust the man charged with prosecuting the matter: Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby.

Willoughby, a 55-year-old Democrat, has been taking on elected officials of both parties since 1983 when he became Wake County's district attorney. State law requires Willoughby, as the state capitol's chief prosecutor, to handle all violations of the state's election and lobbying laws, and therefore he prosecutes more political figures than most district attorneys.

"He's an equal opportunity prosecutor," Raleigh lawyer Dan Boyce, a Republican, said Friday.

Those Republicans calling for Black to resign say they think Willoughby can be trusted to handle any prosecution of his party colleague, even in an election year.

"We have no reason to believe he would not do the right thing simply because he's a Democrat," said Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the state Republican Party.

Peaslee noted that Willoughby has prosecuted high-profile Democratic politicians, such as Meg Scott Phipps, the former agriculture commissioner from a storied North Carolina political family. In 2003, Willoughby prosecuted Phipps for lying about illegal campaign contributions and an attempted cover-up. She is serving four years in a federal prison.

Willoughby, a Columbus County native, is a skilled politician who uses a self-deprecating sense of humor to charm those around him. Many assumed Willoughby would one day run for statewide office, maybe state attorney general, but he has appeared happy to remain Wake's district attorney even after two decades. His wife, Patricia Willoughby, has served many years on the State Board of Education. In 2004, Gov. Mike Easley appointed her interim state schools superintendent.

Willoughby said Friday that he will not rush to finish the review of Black's actions despite a primary election and the opening of the legislative session, both in May. "In matters such as this, we should be careful and deliberate," Willoughby said.

Willoughby has to decide whether it was illegal for Black to have forwarded $4,200 worth of checks from fellow optometrists with the payee line blank to former state Rep. Michael Decker. Black was able to remain speaker in a power-sharing agreement with Republicans thanks to Decker's switching political parties.

On Thursday, the elections board found that Black and his campaign gave those funds to Decker's campaign without reporting it as the law requires and referred the violations to Willoughby for possible prosecution. The board asked Willoughby to probe the activities of the political action committees for optometrists and the video poker industry, including 18 contributors with ties to video poker.

Willoughby agreed to review the board's investigation and refer any violations to other prosecutors across the state. It is unclear what criminal violations Willoughby might pursue or refer for prosecution elsewhere.

Willoughby was already looking into lobbying law violations by Black's political director and two others connected to a company vying for the state lottery contract. On Friday, Willoughby said he hopes to reach a resolution within weeks in the investigation into lobbying by Black's former political director, Meredith Norris; former state lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings of Charlotte; Scientific Games, a company that helped craft state lottery legislation; and Alan Middleton, a Scientific Games vice president.

Willoughby has been closely following the elections board's investigation. One of his investigators, William F. Dowdy, has attended the hearings and briefed Willoughby. Dowdy is retired from the State Bureau of Investigation as an assistant director and an agent who investigated public corruption. Willoughby said that Dowdy helped put together their case against Phipps.

Willoughby said that when his office has prosecuted public officials in the past, he often steps in to handle the case personally, even at the misdemeanor level.

"When it has involved some high-level government official, I felt like I should do it as opposed to asking an assistant to do it," Willoughby said.

He added, "I get involved in misdemeanor matters that I think are of significant public interest and where I think the public expects the elected district attorney to get involved."

The prosecutor retains the trust of many in the Democratic Party, though political futures might be at stake. All House Democrats are up for election in November, and Republicans will try to capitalize on the investigations swirling around Black to win seats in the legislature.

"He is fair, just and will do the right thing," said state Rep. Deborah Ross, a Wake Democrat.

(News researcher Becky Ogburn contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Andrea Weigl can be reached at 829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com.

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