Mecklenburg District Judge Bill Belk waded deeper into controversy this week, saying the chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court had been "bought" by Charlotte lawyers.
Belk, who already faces a misconduct hearing before the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, made the comment Sunday night to Charlotte's Black Political Caucus, according to several members who attended.
He also told the caucus that one reason he continues to serve on a corporate board -- despite rules against judges' holding such positions -- is for the health insurance.
Belk's comments created a buzz from the courthouse in Charlotte to the Supreme Court in Raleigh
"It was a little bit unsettling to me," said Franklin McCain, a former caucus chairman. "Here was a sitting judge engaging in partisan politics in public."
The Observer spoke to more than a dozen caucus members who attended Sunday's meeting. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they didn't want to criticize a judge or discuss caucus matters publicly.
Belk told the group that N.C. Chief Justice Sarah Parker was "bought" by Charlotte lawyers including Bill Diehl, according to several caucus members. Belk said the chief justice, a Democrat, bypassed more experienced Democrats in December when she appointed Republican Lisa Bell as Mecklenburg's chief district judge.
Belk did not return calls.
Parker declined to comment about Belk's allegations because they might come before the high court. "I have absolutely no idea where he's coming from," she said.
Belk faces a disciplinary hearing before the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, possibly this summer. The Supreme Court could ultimately sit in judgment.
Last week the commission's counsel accused Belk of "willful misconduct" for continuing to serve on corporate boards and for a February confrontation he had with Bell, Mecklenburg's chief judge.
According to a statement of charges: Belk chastised Bell after she declined his request for time off to attend a corporate board meeting. He called her a "political hack" and acted in a "threatening and abusive manner." He also suggested that Bell had been named chief judge "so she could screw him over," the charges said.
Belk has until May 4 to respond.
The Judicial Standards Commission could dismiss the case or ask the Supreme Court to censure, suspend or remove Belk from the bench.
The black caucus endorsed Belk last year and helped him unseat incumbent Judge Ben Thalheimer.
According to Franklin McCain, the former Black Political Caucus chairman, Belk told the group "people are after him because he is exposing the judicial system and he is going to clean things up. ..."
"The only time he got personal," McCain added, "was with Judge Parker."
Belk, a Republican, told the caucus Parker bypassed African-American judges in appointing Bell.
The Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to act "at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
Diehl, one of the lawyers Belk accused of buying Chief Justice Parker, told the Observer he never spoke to her about Bell.
Diehl said he would file a grievance against Belk and accused him of "paranoia and insanity."
Bell declined comment, noting the pending case against Belk.
Parker, of Charlotte, said she chose Bell after consulting other judges, the district attorney and other court personnel.
"Politics was not really a factor," she said. "I was interested in picking the best person for the job."
Belk is the grandson of the founder of the Belk department store chain. In November, he defeated a judge who ruled against him in part of his divorce case.