SCOTT MOONEYHAM: Investigation Affecting More Than Just Black
By August 2002, FBI agents had begun looking into whether illegal video poker proceeds were making their way into political campaign coffers in North Carolina.
In the more than four years since, the investigation into political corruption tied to legislative fund-raising has expanded.
In September 2004, former U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney announced that the state's second-largest video poker operator had pleaded guilty to money laundering.
By October 2005, the investigation had focused on the office and activities of House Speaker Jim Black. Whitney subpoenaed documents from Black's office related to video poker, the lottery and the activities of his former political director, Meredith Norris.
Then prosecutors began calling Black employees and appointees, along with lobbyists, before a federal grand jury.
The parade has continued ever since.
In March, the state Board of Elections, after two lengthy hearings, asked Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby to conduct a criminal investigation into Black's campaign finances.
In August, former state Rep. Michael Decker, whose party switch was instrumental in keeping Black in power, pleaded guilty in federal court to a felony charge of conspiracy to commit extortion. Decker later named Black as a co-conspirator.
Two months later, in the same courtroom, a jury convicted Kevin Geddings -- a Black appointee to the state lottery commission -- of mail fraud.
Jim Black is no bank robber. He's not even some rank-and-file congressman accused of stuffing cash in a refrigerator.
He's one of the most powerful politicians in the state. And as long as this investigation hangs over him, it will color the actions of the legislature, affecting state policy.
Of course, many newspapers and a few fellow legislators have called on Black to resign. They might as well be yelling at the wind to stop blowing.
Unless and until prosecutors move against him, Black won't resign. Rightly or wrongly, he can claim that the investigation is politically motivated, that he has done nothing illegal and that prosecutors' dawdling is proof of his contentions.
The investigation, though, is having an effect on the House's ability to organize.
Black retains a strong core of supporters in the House. And, from all appearances, he is seeking another term as speaker.
As long as Black is a player, other would-be speakers will have trouble lining up support.
It's an atmosphere rife for fractures, and one in which it will be difficult for the House to organize this January. And an unorganized House cannot effectively operate or govern.
Simply put, this investigation doesn't exist in a vacuum. Indirectly, it affects everyone in the state.
Scott Mooneyham writes for Capitol Press Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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