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The scandal that keeps on giving

Grand jury hears testimony as Jim Black returns donations and Michael Decker's spending spree makes headlines

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On Monday, state Sen. Andrew Brock, a campaign consultant by trade, got himself a little notoriety as the first Republican to launch an ad campaign based on the scandal swirling around House Speaker Jim Black.

Since the ad launch was literally a made-for-TV event, TV made it to the event. Brock, who is running in a Senate district that represents Rowan and Davie counties, got his name and message splashed statewide for free even while lamenting that he would have to pour his meager $8,000 in campaign cash into getting his message out.

He is running again, by the way, in a district he's held since 2002, against a fellow he beat by more than 17,000 votes last time out.

Black, speaker of a chamber Brock has never served in, is sure to star in a number of these short films, which also feature ominous music, torn headlines, dramatic, angst-filled narration and, of course, a candidate willing to go to Raleigh and "clean up the mess." As Brock has shown, this is a drum Republicans are going to beat from now until Election Day, regardless of the nature of the local race.

For them and anyone in the media, this is the scandal that keeps on giving. It's actually two scandals: the Michael Decker vote switch and blank check scandal; and the lottery and video poker scandal. There is plenty of movement on both to provide continued fodder.

Vote switch

Although his lawyers argued that they were perfectly legal, Superior Court Judge James Spencer backed up the State Board of Elections on Aug. 7, ordering Black to return $6,800 in contributions that came to him via a stack of checks with the payee's name left blank, by way of the N.C. State Optometric Society.

On Aug. 1, Decker, the former representative who got some of those checks, pleaded guilty in federal court to taking cash and checks in return for changing his vote for speaker and his political affiliation. A review of his campaign reports by The News & Observer shows he spent at least some of the money on a whirlwind trip to Arkansas. According to Decker, the exchange involved $38,000 in checks and $12,000 in cash handed over at a now-famous International House of Pancakes off Interstate 85 in Salisbury. Black admits meeting Decker there, but says Decker had offered to switch his vote before getting the contributions. Black also denies he handed over any cash. Decker is facing up to five years in jail and a $250,000 fine for his crime. He is due to be sentenced Nov. 1--six days before Election Day. New ethics legislation passed this summer bans both the practice of soliciting partially blank checks and converting campaign cash for personal use.

Lottery investigation

This case is a lot more complicated than whether there was a quid pro quo to get Decker to switch his vote. Investigators have been working through thousands of records, including e-mails and other correspondence between Black's office and lottery executives and lobbyists. The most recent action--and flurry of speculation--in the case came on July 20, when Black's former staffer Meredith Norris and former Rep. William Culpepper, a top Black ally in the House, were both seen entering the federal courthouse in Raleigh where a grand jury is looking into how the lottery deal went down. Norris, who was charged last year for failing to report her lobbying work for lottery vendor Scientific Games, was mum on whether she testified. A lawyer for Culpepper, who headed up a special committee tasked with shepherding the lottery bill through the House, confirmed his client has been subpoenaed by the grand jury.

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