It's the key political question that politicos across the state want an answer to. What, if anything, do the feds have on North Carolina State House Speaker Jim Black? And given what they do have, what else still might be out there that we, or they, don't know about?
In the balance hangs control of the state legislature, which has teetered back and forth between Republican and Democratic control in recent years.
As a grand jury investigation into the activities of at least 28 people associated with Black rolls on with multiple subpoenas handed out to a wide array of people in a wide array of industries, the answer has been less than clear. Black's lawyers have repeatedly claimed that he is not a part of the investigation.
But what is slowly becoming apparent is that an odd and troubling pattern is emerging in both Black's finance reports and those of the heavy-hitting Democratic fund-raising groups he has led.
Most newspapers across the state reported last week that the state board of elections is now looking into whether $395,000 in corporate contributions, which are illegal in North Carolina, were funneled to Democratic legislative candidates by a national fund-raising group called the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC).
The state GOP became suspicious after election reports showed that the state branch of the DLCC didn't list any money spent on fund-raising, and insisted that it was hard to believe that thousands of individual donors would spontaneously donate nearly half a million dollars without a major fund-raising effort, which costs money.
The discrepancy was discovered by researchers at the conservative Civitas Institute in Raleigh, which is no friend of Black's, and referred to the board of elections by the state Republican Party.
What wasn't reported in news articles across the state last week was the other startling discrepancy in the DLCC's 2004 report. The report listed 3,169 individual donors who together supposedly donated $395,000, but it failed to include names and addresses for all but 162 of them, a violation of election law. The state board of elections has since requested that information, which it expects to receive by the first week of January.
When Civitas began contacting those whose names were listed on the DLCC report, a troubling pattern began to emerge. According to a newsletter published by Civitas, when the group called 25 of these donors, most of whom don't live in North Carolina, only one could remember making a donation to a North Carolina PAC. Many were puzzled as to why their names appeared in the report at all, some multiple times. Others suggested that there must have been a mistake.
Both the state Democratic Party and Caroline Valand, the DLCC's political director at the time, have insisted that the groups have done nothing wrong and did not receive a lump sum of illegal corporate cash.
Given its political bent, if it were just the Civitas Institute that had discovered the trend, it wouldn't be too remarkable. But Civitas isn't alone. In 2002, the Charlotte Observer discovered a similar trend when it called video poker industry donors whose contributions appeared on Black's campaign finance forms. The paper found at least six people who also couldn't recall making a donation to Black and some who didn't even know who he was.
Black was the finance chairman for the DLCC during the 2004 election, raised considerable sums of money for the group and remains on its board of directors.