All Muck is Local: North Carolina

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July 15, 2007 12:43 p.m.

Former Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-CA) used to cut seedy political deals over well-done steak at the posh Capital Grille. Jim Black had to settle for the bathroom at the local IHOP.

Black, a former Democrat in the North Carolina state legislature, was sentenced to five years in prison this week. (You can read the sentencing memorandum here.) Black admitted last February that he accepted bribes from three local chiropractors sometime between 2000 and 2002 in exchange for bringing chiropractor-friendly legislation to the floor.

But the real intrigue began in 2002, when state Republicans regained control of the House by a razor-thin 61-59 margin. Black, then Speaker at the time, had no plans to hand over the job. Enter the International House of Pancakes and long-time state Republican Michael Decker. Meeting in the restroom of the chain made famous for providing 24-hour access to flapjacks, Black struck a quick deal. In exchange for $50,000 and some party perks, Decker would switch affiliations and support Black in his bid for Speaker. Decker declared his newfound transformation into a Democrat, pocketed his $50,000 in cash and campaign contributions ad Black landed a job as co-speaker. Keep in mind that these charges did not come up in his criminal case, but he has admitted in civil court to paying Decker to switch parties.

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It was this deal that cleared the way for Black’s chiropractor agenda (interestingly enough, at least one of the chiropractors also bribed Black while in a public restroom). But Black’s corruption doesn’t stop there.

Even though the 72-year old Democrat pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, he didn’t roll over when faced with a harsh prison sentence. When Fletcher Keith, one of the chiropractors in question, was sent a grand jury subpoena, Black suddenly developed a sore shoulder. While Keith treated the injury, Black suggested that Keith tell the grand jury that the cash payments were simply “a little bit of money to help [Black] with expenses along the road while [Black] was out running around the country.” And when caught telling one of the bribers to lie about the nature of a contested $4,000 personal check, Black argued that his meddling was not obstruction of justice because the check wasn’t a bribe anyway (it was).

In the end, Black had a tough time finding leniency from the judge. His arguments for sentence reduction were not terribly convincing; Black claimed he had been honest for the first 70 years of his life (during the investigation it was uncovered that Black had violated campaign finance rules multiple times earlier in his career) and was too physically fragile (Black is an avid golfer and is in comparably good shape for his age). Of course, Black also asked for a sentence reduction because of his years of public service. For some reason, the judge didn’t bite on that one either.

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All Muck is Local Honorable Mention: It was a particularly mucky week, especially for stories involving public restrooms. But we wanted to make a special mention of Former Newark Mayor Sharpe James. James narrowly avoided corruption allegations through the nineties, but has just recently been indicted for abusing city credit cards while in office. We’ll be keeping an eye on the upcoming trial.

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