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Black goes down

Takes Charlotte Observer with him

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Now that's more like it.

For more than a year, I've predicted that former North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black would have to be led away in chains before the Charlotte Observer's editorial board would forcefully condemn him, that until they certified him as a felon, they'd never demand that he resign from office. As usual, I was right.

"Former House Speaker Jim Black's admission in federal court that he sought and took illegal cash payments from special interests changes everything," an editorial in the paper said last week. "It's no longer a case of a well-placed politician stepping over the ethical line, going overboard on the exercise of power, engaging in questionable behavior."

"Going overboard"? "Questionable behavior"? Are they mad?

Here's how that read to politicians: "If you are a power broker who occasionally brings home the bucks for the projects that Charlotte's ruling clique wants, we got your back for as long as you manage to avoid indictment. We may have to lightly slap your hand from time to time to save face, but we're with you."

In other states with less dysfunctional political and editorial environments, editorial boards call for the resignation of those who merely accept junkets or illegal campaign cash from interest groups and lobbyists.

Black took that to a whole new level when he moved a lobbyist into his office to work as an unpaid personal assistant, performing tasks like managing his daily affairs, raising money for him and shaking her clients down for campaign cash. Meanwhile her boss at the lottery company Scientific Games wrote parts of the state's lottery law, inserting language designed to help the lottery company's bid.

With the help of his pet lobbyist, Meredith Norris, Black created a tourism job for the wife of one of her clients who had donated $8,000 to Black. Moments later, the client shot back a thank you e-mail and a pledge to give $2,000 more. In August, former Republican legislator Michael Decker pleaded guilty to extortion, money laundering and fraud charges for taking $50,000 to switch parties and vote for Black for speaker. He hasn't yet said who paid him, but he has named Black as a co-conspirator.

This is what the Observer calls "questionable behavior."

Even after newspapers, including the Observer , started reporting this stuff, Black kept doing it. That's probably because the one institution that could really have put some heat on him clearly wouldn't. The Big O's editorial board eventually made a tepid suggestion that he resign the speakership after the public screamed about the paper's seemingly open-ended support of Black.

As late as last year, Black was still working on legislation for the chiropractors we now know paid him wads of cash in the bathrooms of swanky clubs. I think that's because he knew if he could avoid indictment, Charlotte's political and social establishment wouldn't care what he did.

"No longer is it enough to express sadness for an official who simply made mistakes of judgment that cost him his office," the editorial board babbled last week. "It's also about condoning, by silence and inaction, the deliberately criminal acts of one of the three most powerful men in state government -- now an admitted felon."

They can't be serious.

It's not clear who the editorial board is referring to here, but the only people I can think of who condoned "by silence and inaction the deliberately criminal acts" of Black would be those on the Observer editorial board and the political and business leaders of this county.

Until recently, the board wrote breathless editorials about how Black was a bad boy, but we couldn't take the blow of losing the goodies his massive influence in the legislature brought back home. That list, which includes taxing authority, light rail money, a few bucks for UNCC (which still doesn't receive the funding other state schools get), and the odd special interest project never impressed me much.

To me it looked like the opposite. Black was a guy who'd sell legislation to chiropractors for $29,000, but wouldn't bother to lift a finger to get embarrassing debris cleaned off state roads in Charlotte or the lights on I-277 turned on so drivers didn't have to die in fiery wrecks. This was a guy who didn't give a rip that the county's criminal justice system got less funding from the state than our local pound.

The truth is that Black's contempt for the law was only slightly greater than his contempt for his constituents. Mecklenburg has long been a donor county that pays the lion's share of the state's taxes and gets bones and grizzle in return. Black was directly responsible for bleeding Mecklenburg County taxpayers dry to fund projects he used as payola to legislators from other parts of the state who helped elect him speaker. This is why the state is building new roads in rural areas while state roads here were backed up and cluttered with trash.

After years of begging, in just two weeks, Charlotte finally got money to turn the interstate lights on and trash crews to pick up the filth on the sides of our roads. What changed? Jim Black was no longer in the way and at the time, Joe Hackney was trolling for last minute votes in the speaker's race, which he won.

I say good riddance to bad rubbish.

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