In other states, politicians get in trouble for merely accepting expensive gifts or junkets paid for by lobbyists. In North Carolina, we take corruption to a whole new level. Here, a lobbyist paid by a sleazy lottery company to pressure Jim Black, speaker of the state legislature, worked for Black for free as a political director while lobbying him, raising money for him and managing his daily affairs.
At that rate, the lottery company, Scientific Games, might as well have sent lobbyist Meredith Norris home with Black to wash his underwear and cook him dinner. Heck, maybe the company did.
Somewhere in the process, the vice president of Scientific Games managed to personally write the parts of the state lottery law that Black's office submitted, using language that enhanced the company's chances of getting the multi-million-dollar contract to run the game.
In a state with a halfway functional political environment, my colleagues on newspaper editorial boards would have called for Black's resignation six months ago. And his Democratic political colleagues, who have vented their disgust with Black in off-the-record conversations with me, would call for his resignation in public. And the leaders of this community wouldn't be holding high-profile fundraisers for Black, who represents Matthews, during his breaks between answering FBI subpoenas.
I hate to waste this space belaboring the obvious, but if no one else is willing to step up to the plate, then I will. Jim Black has become an embarrassment to this community. He must resign. Now.
Some politicians say we should wait and see if the grand jury reviewing these and other unsavory activities indicts Black. The problem with that philosophy is its price. Every day without a call for Black's resignation is another day in which we implicitly condone the questionably legal, completely unethical sleaze that oozes from his office, another day in which we send a loud and clear message to other politicians that this kind of behavior is acceptable.
Things began to unravel for Black seven months ago when it was discovered that he and his political cronies -- who have long claimed the state is struggling financially -- set aside secret slush funds of at least $5 million apiece. They personally controlled the money, which they "donated" to projects in the districts of legislators who curried favor with them. Many of the legislators whose districts received these donations right before election time sat on the boards of the non-profits to which Black and his friends doled out the money.
Then other legislators discovered Black had used some of the money from his slush fund to create a $48,000-a-year tourism job for Michael Decker, a former Republican legislator who lost his seat after he switched his party registration and voted with the Democrats, giving Black the one-vote margin he needed to avoid losing the speakership. Though Decker has no tourism experience, he is mapping out a route to the state's old gold mines -- a critical job, I'm sure, during a period when the state is supposedly strapped for cash.
Then there was the tourism job Norris and Black helped create for Ruth Almond, the wife of Michael Almond, one of Norris' lobbying clients who had donated more than $8,000 to Black. Last year, Norris and Ruth Almond e-mailed back and forth about Black's efforts to create the job, including one in which Norris wrote, "Speaker Black is working on this for you!" Moments after Michael Almond sent an e-mail saying his wife's application was almost complete, he shot off another e-mail announcing his donation of $2,000.
But Black apparently doesn't just use plumb state jobs to reward his friends -- he also uses jobs to punish his enemies, or anyone whose opinions he finds distasteful. After UNC-Charlotte economist John Connaughton made the mistake of saying in The Charlotte Observer that state sales and income taxes are too high and becoming a drag on the economy, Norris fired off an e-mail on Black's behalf to the NC Partnership for Economic Development, which was in the process of giving Connaughton a $50,000 grant for a study of the automobile industry.
She wrote: "The speaker is very concerned about someone who is lambasting Democrats for spending money and/or raising taxes, and then wants to use those very same funds for his own purposes." The speaker, she continued, would be watching to see if the partnership -- which is funded with state money -- went forward with the grant. Needless to say, it was immediately scuttled.
So far, both my colleagues and Black's have suggested his actions were questionable, even that he should apologize for some of them. But they can't seem to get their lips and their pens to form the "R" word. So let's practice together: Jim Black must resign. Jim Black must resign. Jim Black must resign.
That wasn't so hard now, was it?