Politics & Government

Black's state term is minimal

The prosecution of former state House Speaker Jim Black wound to a close Thursday when the onetime political powerhouse received the minimum 11- to 14-month state sentence for bribery.

Black, who is serving a 63-month sentence in a Georgia federal prison, will serve his state sentence concurrently with his federal sentence.

"He is an old man who is sick and who will stay in prison, perhaps the rest of his life," said Wake County Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens. "I am under the impression that his wife is ill and may die while he is in prison."

Black's lawyers have said that he is in unspecified poor health and that his wife, Betty, is suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, a neurological disorder. Black was not in court Thursday.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the sentence was appropriate.

Black, 74, was sentenced to federal prison in 2007 for accepting thousands of dollars in illegal payments when he was House speaker. The Mecklenburg County Democrat had been one of the most powerful men in state government, able to strongly influence what bills became law.

Besides the federal charges, Black also faced state charges. He entered an Alford plea on the state charges, taking responsibility but not admitting guilt. He has already served the sentence for obstruction of justice.

But Stephens delayed sentencing on the bribery charge, saying Black could avoid having two years added on to his sentence if he paid a $1 million fine.

Black struggled to come up with the money, failing to meet several court deadlines. Last summer he paid $500,000 in cash, and this spring he turned over undeveloped property near Charlotte that was appraised at $613,000. The two parcels totaling 9.5 acres are on Rice Road in Matthews.

Under the state constitution, state fines and forfeitures go to local school systems. Wake County school board member Ron Margiotta has criticized the land transaction, saying Black should have been required to provide cash. Margiotta questioned the appraisal, noting that it was commissioned by Black's family. Margiotta noted that the tax value of the property in 2003 was $149,000.

"We've got an appraisal done for a criminal," Margiotta said. "Give me a break."

Stephens was livid when he read Margiotta's remarks, and held up the sentencing to summon an attorney for the school board to appear before him.

"It's like giving your daughter a Toyota and her saying, 'Dad, I'd rather have a BMW,'" Stephens said. The judge said he would have to give serious thought to whether he would levy fines in the future that would benefit the Wake County school system.

"Criticism from those receiving the gift puts a chilling effect on judges who are working very hard for their community," Stephens said. "It's not appreciated. I don't even understand it. It makes no sense. It's idiotic."

Wake County GOP Chairman Claude Pope later underscored Margiotta's comments, saying there had been a lack of accountability in the case.

"We have the party in power cutting deals for its own fallen leader, avoiding government accountability, allowing a man convicted of betraying the public trust to avoid personal responsibility of his crimes, and cheating the Wake County taxpayers out of some much-needed tax relief," Pope said in a statement.

Black is scheduled for release from federal prison in 2012. If he should be released before his concurrent state term ends, Stephens said, he would have to serve out his full state term unless the governor commuted it.

Black was recently moved to a prison in Jesup, Ga. Supporters have been lobbying authorities for an early release, citing health concerns.

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