For just a minute, it was hard to tell whether the proceedings were a sentencing hearing or an episode of "Let's Make a Deal."
Wake Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens sounded for all the world like game show host Monty Hall when he offered former House Speaker Jim Black the option of doing seven years in prison and keeping his possibly taint-ed dough or giving up $1 million and going free in a little more than five years.
If Black were 27, he would likely choose to do the time. You see, the prison camp at Lewisburg, Pa., isn't exactly Sing Sing, and young convicts can do Club Fed time standing on their heads.
Black, alas, is not 27. He is 72 with, presumably, fewer years to enjoy his post-incarceration. Thus, he might need to liquidate some assets, pay up and give himself an extra couple of years to rock on his front porch sipping Grey Goose while singing the refrain to "Me & Bobby McGee": Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.
You must understand, though, that I may not be the best person to offer counsel. I'm ashamed to admit that I once bailed myself out of the Atlanta city jail three hours before going to court and having the charges dismissed. That was back when $500 could get you more than just a tankful of gas.
For a varied perspective, I asked other Triangle residents which curtain they would choose.
Rob Minton, a physician assistant at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Durham, stopped thumbing through a stack of CDs at Offbeat Music Store in Durham's Brightleaf Square.
"If I were him, I'd probably figure, 'I'm a crook anyway, so I should do all seven,' " he said.
But seriously, folks. The Hillsborough resident added, more realistically, "After five years in the slammer, I'd figure, 'I might as well do two more and save my money.' "
When Judge Stephens morphed into Monty Hall, Black himself turned into Pavarotti, singing an aria to prosecutor Colin Willoughby about "the shenanigans that go on in money and politics."
Black's former colleagues pooh-poohed his implication that lobbyists giving money to legislators is commonplace. Aghast, they all but swore that this is the first and only time something like this has ever occurred.
Black named people to whom he had given money, and he snitched out the mystery benefactor who had written him a check for $500,000 in 2000. It was Don "Big Money Grip" Beason, a lobbyist frequently voted most influential.
Imagine that. The dude hands out a half-mil like a nurse at the free clinic dispensing condoms during spring break, and we're surprised he has juice on Jones Street? Oy.
The best advice I received for Black came from Jeff Johnson of Durham. Asked whether he would have chosen Curtain No. 1 (five years in the joint and a $1 million fine) or Curtain No. 2 (seven years and keep the money), Johnson quickly said, "I'd have gone to Mexico."
Amen. Who knows? Maybe next year one of Black's friends will be elected president, enabling the ex-legislator to make a deal for a pardon.
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