‘Black’ eye in NC politics

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 3, 2005

Is it time for North Carolina House Speaker Jim Black to step down?

The list of questionable and possibly illegal activities Black has been involved in continues to grow. The latest controversy involves Black possibly creating a state funded job for a friend and campaign contributor.

I will try to recap Black’s tumultuous year, but I doubt I have enough space to include all of the political shenanigans.

People connected to Black are under investigation for possible lobbying law or ethics violations that took place during the lead-up to the state lottery passing. Black appointed Kevin Geddings to the lottery commission, but Geddings later revealed that he had been paid $24,500 by the lottery company Scientific Games. Meredith Norris is a Raleigh lobbyist and consultant who was an aide to Black from 1999 to 2002. Norris was also Black’s unpaid campaign political director until October, when she was asked to resign after it became public that she was also working for Scientific Games. The company reimbursed her for more than $3,000 in meals and entertainment for Black and other lawmakers.

Former Democratic political consultant Jim Sinsheimer created a Web site (jimblackmustgo.com) to try to drive Black from office. Sinsheimer claims that Black’s campaign committee gave former state Rep. Michael Decker a $4,000 campaign contribution this year, one day before Decker closed his campaign. According to Sinsheimer, Black was also working to create a temporary position for Decker within the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources.

Decker, a Forsyth County Republican, switched to the Democratic Party shortly before the 2003 legislative session began, creating a 60-60 split in the House. This switch allowed Black to remain speaker under a power sharing agreement with Republican Richard Morgan.

The latest scandal involves Michael Almond, a former head of a regional economic development partnership in Charlotte, and Almond’s wife, Helen Ruth Almond. Helen Almond was apparently looking for a job two years ago and according to published e-mail correspondence, Black helped create a $39,000-a-year state tourism job for Helen Almond. After Helen Almond started the job, the newly created position was the subject of a positive article in a western North Carolina newspaper.

Michael Almond sent Norris this email: &uot;I love it when a plan comes together!”

Earlier this week Almond said he regretted the comment.

&uot;In the context of what’s going on now, that was an unfortunate choice of words,&uot; Almond said. Would Michael Almond have felt these words were unfortunate if this story never broke?

According to the emails, Black also agreed to help the Almonds’ son gain admission to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Black consistently sought state money to help partnerships like the one Michael Almond worked for and Almond helped persuade officials at other partnerships in the state to give Meredith Norris two consultant contracts worth a total of $66,000 a year.

The budgets for these partnerships have grown by 52 percent in recent years, from $5.6 million in 2002 to $8.5 million this year. During that same time period, Almond and his wife gave Black $6,500 in political contributions.

State law forbids officials from offering state jobs in exchange for political contributions, just in case you were wondering.

Michael Almond retired as the partnership’s CEO in June and claimed Black helped his family because the two are friends. Michael and Helen Almond said Helen won the job because she was the best qualified candidate and they claim their political contributions had nothing to do with her winning the job.

Everything else is a coincidence I guess.