Eyes of the Fleet

Eyes of the Fleet

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Fallout from a coup in North Carolina: Jail terms - but how do we get our government back?

Following the 2002 elections in North Carolina, the Republicans should have had a majority in the state legislature. Except that a couple of corrupt politicians managed to void the election and the Democrats kept power for the 2003 General Assembly. Much of what happened is set out in this opinion piece from the Charlotte Obersver. The key players were the then Speaker of the House, Jim Black (D) and Michael Decker (Republican who accepted a bribe to convert to Democrat).
Judge James Dever didn't miss his calling, but if he had become a preacher or teacher, he'd have done just fine from the pulpit or the lectern.

When he laid down the law Friday and sentenced former state Rep. Michael Decker to four years in prison for instigating the worst corruption scandal in modern state history, his lecture on the devastating costs of dishonesty in public office and his sermon on the evils of greed for money and power were riveting.

Former House Speaker Jim Black wasn't in the courtroom, but Dever made it clear he believed Decker and Black conspired in a three-year scheme to defraud their legislative colleagues, hoodwink voters and betray a tradition of honest service when Black bribed Decker to switch parties and support him for speaker.

It's a shame the N.C. General Assembly wasn't present to hear the judge's view of what happened. There would have been a lot of seat-squirming -- and possibly some dawning understanding of how bad this really was.

Here's some of what Dever said during a sentencing hearing that rambled over five hours and two breaks:

"Mr. Decker sold his office for money, and Speaker Black bought it for power."

Their scheme to thwart the 2002 election and wrest control of the House "was breathtaking in its purpose and scope."

Their deal created "a profound loss of public confidence in North Carolina government."

The two "did not operate in shades of gray or merely outmaneuver their opponents," but "attacked the core of representative government" in North Carolina.

Decker and Black "duped all members of the General Assembly" and the public in a conspiracy that "fuels public perception of corruption."

The two "engaged in an epic betrayal" of their oath of office, their constituents, their colleagues and all former members of the General Assembly, "living or dead."

Their conspiracy "adds currency to the false notion that every member" of the legislature is for sale and "all politicians are corrupt. They are not."
Decker gets 4 years, Black is yet to be sentenced:
Dever gave Decker a longer sentence than prosecutors wanted and a $50,000 fine because of the damage caused by the bribery and extortion scheme. It resulted in legislation that might never have passed the legislature without the conspiracy. I don't even think we'd have a lottery, which passed in 2005, without Black's clinging to power in the 2003 session and surviving another term.

Prosecutors thought Decker deserved a much shorter sentence because he volunteered to cooperate in March 2006 after finding he could not live with the crimes he had committed. He told prosecutors he had promised Black he would support him for speaker for $50,000 and a staff job that went to his son.

Decker then switched parties and helped thwart Republican control of the 2003 legislature and led to a co-speakership with Black and Republican Rep. Richard Morgan that year. In 2005, Democrats regained control and Black served a fourth term as speaker, arguably the most powerful in legislative history, until things fell apart a year ago. He has pleaded guilty in federal and state courts and is to be sentenced in mid-May.
I doubt North Carolina will be winning any awards for good government in the immediate future. "Third world-like" may be a more apt description.

How do the citizens get the government they elected in 2002 back? Coups like this in a true third-world country might have resulted in people being lined up against walls. Decker is lucky that parts of the rule of law are intact. Black better be planning on a long prison stay.

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