Politics & Government

Jim Black needs a break, supporters say

Former Republican Gov. Jim Martin plans to be among those asking federal officials to move former Democratic House Speaker Jim Black to a prison closer to home or to commute his sentence.

Black's attorney says about 150 people -- including interim N.C. State University Chancellor Jim Woodward and several legislators -- already have written on Black's behalf. Black has been locked up since July 2007 in Lewisburg, Pa., the prison that once held union boss Jimmy Hoffa and crime boss John Gotti. Black is scheduled for release in 2012.

Black, 74, was sentenced for accepting thousands of dollars in illegal payments while speaker of the N.C. House.

Friends say not only has he become increasingly infirm, but his wife, Betty, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- "Lou Gehrig's Disease."

"There needs to be some compassion and some consideration ... where a family member is suffering from ALS," says Lee Myers, mayor of Matthews, Black's hometown.

Sen. Bob Rucho, Black's long-time dentist and a Matthews Republican, said Black's wife "is need of help, and he's not there to help her."

Not everybody wants Black's term cut.

"Jim Black wants our compassion today, but all we ever wanted from him was honest government," says Joe Sinsheimer, a Raleigh consultant whose research helped lead to Black's downfall. "I would hope that federal officials reflect on the severity of his crimes -- and the damage it did to our democracy -- before they commute his sentence."

In a letter to the U.S. pardon attorney, lawyer Jim Craven of Durham cited Black's "wretched health" and said the longtime optometrist has eye problems. He said President George Bush rejected Black's request for commutation last Christmas Eve.

"Realistically ... the only hope for Betty and Jim rests with you and the President," Craven wrote.

Supporters are working through the Bureau of Prisons as well as the White House, he said. Some hope Black can at least move closer to his wife.

"I believe that would be a reasonable and compassionate request under all the circumstances," Martin said in e-mail. Martin, whose brother Joe suffered from ALS, said he plans to write to the Bureau of Prisons when he returns from vacation this week.

Among those writing for leniency were several lawmakers and former lawmakers, Charlotte investor Mark Erwin and businessman Cameron Harris.

Tony Zeiss, president of Central Piedmont Community College, and Woodward, the former chancellor of UNC-Charlotte, wrote on Black's behalf. The former speaker helped get millions for both their institutions.

Questions arise over fine

While friends are rallying to Black, attorneys are defending a deal in which Black swapped land as partial payment of his million-dollar fine.

A Raleigh law firm that represents Black wrote to the John Locke Foundation late last week, taking issue with a Carolina Journal article questioning the land deal. Black was prosecuted in Wake County and, under law, fines go to local school systems.

While Black paid Wake schools half the million-dollar fine in cash, he paid the balance in nine acres of undeveloped property. The Journal noted that it has a tax value of less than $150,000.

However, attorneys for both Black and the Wake school system pointed to an appraisal from May for $613,000.

And attorney Kris Gardner, who represents the system, said the property had been under contract in 2007 for $574,000 before the deal fell through.

"We feel very confident that the property value is worth at least $500,000 today," Gardner says. "There may not be many takers right now, but the school system doesn't have to sell it right now."

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