While friends lobby for a pardon, imprisoned former N.C. House Speaker Jim Black may hold his own key to early release -- by cooperating with prosecutors who put him behind bars.
Under a 2007 plea agreement, federal prosecutors agreed to recommend a shorter sentence in exchange for "substantial assistance" -- information that helps in other prosecutions.
"We are more than happy to live up to our bargain," U.S. Attorney George Holding, who prosecuted Black in the Eastern District, said Monday. "We have a continuing obligation, if he provides substantial assistance, to ask for a reduction in his sentence."
Black, a Matthews Democrat, was sentenced in 2007 for accepting thousands of dollars in illegal payments while speaker. He's scheduled for release from a federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., in March 2012.
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His lawyers have said more than 150 people, including Republicans, have asked federal officials to commute his sentence or at least move him closer to home.
In a letter to the U.S. pardon attorney, lawyer Jim Craven said Black, 74, was in "wretched health" and his wife has ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease.
Black was the biggest catch in a web of corruption probes that snared several fellow Democrats. Former U.S. Rep. Frank Ballance, former Agriculture Secretary Meg Scott Phipps, former state Rep. Mike Decker and lottery commissioner Kevin Geddings all went to prison.
Ballance is scheduled for release today. Phipps served four years before her release in 2007. Decker and Geddings are still behind bars.
But other names swirled amid allegations of unreported donations and pay-to-play politics.
The state elections board, for example, looked at how Black got $2,000 cash from a topless-bar owner whose donation went through a Charlotte tourism group before ending up in Black's campaign. In a probe of donations from the video poker industry, the elections board sought testimony from games operator Robert Huckabee, who was out of the country and never testified.
And at his sentencing, Black testified that lobbyist Don Beason, whose clients included the amusement machine association, lent him $500,000 in June 2000, about the time the House rejected a Senate effort to ban video poker.
Holding said Black provided no substantial assistance that would have aided other prosecutions.
Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said Black also offered little help to state prosecutors.
"The information he provided did not allow us to move forward with other prosecutions," Willoughby said Monday. "We did not gain any significant insights from either his interviews or testimony as to the involvement of others or the where the cash went."
Black attorney Whit Powell of Raleigh argues that his client has cooperated.
"We take the position that he did provide substantial assistance at the time," Powell said, "The government took the position that any information he had given them they already had."
He said Black "is certainly willing to testify to a grand jury or talk to federal investigators about anything they'd like to talk about."
Bob Hall of Democracy North Carolina, whose research into Black's campaign contributions helped set the stage for his prosecution, suggests that the former speaker could offer prosecutors more help.
"So if he wants a reduced prison time now, does that mean he's changed his mind and is ready to tell the truth about the full extent of pay-to-play politics in North Carolina?"