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Black day at the IHOP

Following the money leads to trouble for speaker

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The infamous meeting at the International House of Pancakes in Salisbury between disgraced former legislator Michael Decker and House Speaker Jim Black may or may not get Black indicted. But it certainly opened the window on Black's style of fundraising.

Decker, then a Republican, says he got $38,000 in campaign checks and $12,000 in cash to vote for Democrat Black as speaker. Black says there was no cash, but he did help Decker raise $38,000 after he'd joined the Democratic "team."

Setting aside the issue of cash, then, where did Black get the $38,000?

For the answer to that, and the genesis of Black's legal problems, we can thank Democracy North Carolina's Bob Hall, who examined Decker's campaign reports after the '04 primaries (Decker lost) and noticed that a lot of his money came in within a month of the deal with Black. And it all had Black's particular political stamp on it.

For starters, Hall noted, Decker got $11,000 from five businessmen who owned truck stops with video-poker machines in them. The state's sheriffs were trying hard to get video poker banned in North Carolina, saying the machines routinely paid out way more than the $10 legal limit in prizes. But their Senate-passed bill could never get a vote in Black's House. (It since has, and video-poker machines are now illegal.)

Hall also noticed that Decker seemed to be suddenly in favor with a series of Black's regular contributors, including: four chiropractics who each gave Decker $1,000 (Black had helped get a law guaranteeing the chiropractics equal treatment with medical doctors under insurance plans); three optometrists who gave Decker a total of $4,400 (Black, an optometrist himself, later slipped language into the state budget that would've required every kindergarten student to have a formal eye exam, a potential optometrists' bonanza; the language was repealed after Black got in trouble); and some hog industry and payday lending donors (both industries that wanted Black's help at the time.)

Later, it came to light that some of the donors had written blank checks and sent them not to Decker, but to Black, who passed them on to Decker.

To compound the matter, Decker then spent a lot of the money, not on his campaign, but on a Chevy van, hotel rooms and other personal expenses.

Decker, earlier this month, pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiring to sell his public vote. Black says it wasn't a conspiracy, just a political deal. But even at that, it's a great example of what critics call the "pay to play" system of politics in the legislature.

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