Poker, sketchy checks face ban

Both issues caused trouble for Black

Staff WriterJune 1, 2006 

The state House took on two issues Wednesday that created black eyes for the state's best known optometrist -- House Speaker Jim Black.

The House voted overwhelmingly to phase out video poker by July 1, 2007, and, in a separate measure, to prevent campaign contributors from giving checks with the payee line blank.

Both votes come after hearings by the State Board of Elections that raised questions about campaign contributions from people with ties to the video poker industry and exposed a system of funneling campaign contribution checks from optometrists to legislative candidates.

Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, drew heat in both sets of hearings.

Black prevented a ban on video poker for the past several years and has been the top North Carolina recipient of campaign contributions from those connected with the industry.

Although the elections board found no wrongdoing on Black's part, it found that some money from video poker industry sources did not come from the named contributor and questioned whether others had the means to make such contributions.

Black was also involved with campaign checks that were given by optometrists, with the payee line blank, to the optometrists' political action committee.

Black told the board in February that he had made out three of the checks, for a total of $4,200, to Rep. Michael Decker in early 2003. At the time, Decker had switched parties to create a 60-60 split in the House, allowing Black to remain speaker in a power-sharing agreement with Republican Richard Morgan of Moore County.

The video poker bill was a late addition Tuesday to a House Rules Committee meeting, which cleared the bill. Black said he moved the bill quickly because all sides were in agreement.

"We're just trying to get the job done," he said. "We don't want to be here all summer."

Fears of an extension

House Minority Leader Joe Kiser, a Lincoln County Republican, supported the bill but said he was worried that lawmakers could extend the phase-out in the next session.

Black proposed the phase-out last week after the Senate, for the fifth time in six years, approved a ban that would require removal of the roughly 10,000 machines in the state by Dec. 1.

The House bill requires operators to remove a third of the machines by Oct. 1, another third by March 1, and the rest by July 1, 2007.

Black said the controversies over questionable campaign contributions did not lead him to push for a phase-out. He said the creation of the lottery last year gives convenience stores another source of revenue, and a phase-out gives those in the video poker business a chance to find other work and sell their machines for a good price.

The Senate scheduled a vote today on the phase-out. Sen. Charlie Albertson, a Duplin County Democrat and an advocate of a ban, said he would support the House bill. The N.C. Sheriffs' Association released a statement supporting the bill, but one video poker operator said it was a raw deal.

"My opinion is, we have restriction of free trade," said Richard Frye, a video poker operator in Southern Pines and a board member with the industry's state association. "I believe that this is discrimination because we can't run the machines while the Cherokees can."

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has a video-only casino in Cherokee with slot, blackjack and poker machines.

Incomplete checks

Shortly after the video poker vote, House members passed a bill to prohibit, in most cases, campaign contribution checks with the payee line blank.

The bill prevents an intermediary from collecting such checks, then deciding which candidate the contribution should go to.

No one voted against the legislation, one of a set of reform bills intended to address perceived flaws in the state's ethics, lobbying and campaign finance laws. All the reforms stem from controversies involving Black's campaign and legislative activities.

Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, defended Black, saying current law does not prevent intermediaries from making out campaign checks.

The elections board found the practice questionable enough to refer Black's activity to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby for a criminal investigation.

Other members say the bill only restates what is already illegal.

"I'm sure the whole series of bills provides some cover [for Black]," Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican, said last week. "But if they also drain the swamp, I'm willing to give some cover."

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

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