Tell it all

With Jim Black's guilty plea, and agreement to cooperate with investigators, it's important that probes around him press on

February 18, 2007 

What a difference a day makes. Before the specifics of the felony charge of taking money from chiropractors in exchange for helping them with legislation were revealed in court, former state House Speaker Jim Black still had some defenders among his colleagues. Sure, they said, he may have played the campaign finance game too well. OK, the guy helped out his contributors, but that's no big deal.

And, said some, Black didn't put money in his own pocket.

Uh, oh.

These folks found out after Black's court appearance that the former speaker was a crook, pure and simple. The story just got sleazier -- Black took cash from chiropractors, some of it handed along in bathrooms at restaurants, and tried to get three pieces of legislation passed that would have been of benefit to the profession in North Carolina.

One law, essentially protecting chiropractors from higher insurance co-payments required by insurance companies, did pass. The others didn't. Black didn't report the money as campaign contributions. According to prosecutors, he just put it in his pocket. He sold his influence, in effect his office. It's just about the worst thing an elected public official can do.

Black resigned his House seat and faces prison time -- he could get up to 10 years, in addition to a fine, and certainly deserves a prison term given the nature of his crime.

Still, he has a chance at some redemption. He is supposed to cooperate with investigators, and this affords North Carolinians an opportunity to see just how special interests and lobbyists and legislators interact. If anyone knows the game, it is Jim Black, who raised campaign money from special interest groups, including the video poker industry and his fellow optometrists, and protected their interests in the General Assembly. He used some of their contributions to give to his fellow legislators, who kept him in power.

It doesn't matter that Black's plea is not related to campaign money, in terms of the impact this has had on his former colleagues, particularly the Democrats who kept him in power for four terms as speaker. This casts shadows over the legislature, which is why lawmakers need to learn lessons and act to restore the public's faith in them.

Those who nurtured favor with Black, including Governor Easley (who relied on Black to push the lottery through to passage) and other lawmakers he boosted to power, surely know he has brought embarrassment upon them as well as upon himself. Worst of all, Black's downfall gives legs to a cynical view that state government is just crooked, period. That chips at the very foundation, the credibility, of the lawmaking process and people's faith in democracy.

That's why investigations must press on, no matter where they lead. It's why new Speaker Joe Hackney, who successfully pushed ethics reforms last session, now must strive to eliminate all -- all -- of the special interest influence gained through lobbyists' contributions to legislators' political action committees, or through sponsorship, for example, of "educational" programs for lawmakers which might just happen to be at resorts. It's why the state's ethics commission needs expanded power and independence.

Ladies and gentlemen of the General Assembly, you'd better get with it. Ask Jim Black. The party's over.

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