Thursday, February 23, 2006

Dem scandal in N. Carolina

Writing in Opinion Journal, Brendan Miniter calls our attention to a scandal that's damaging Democrats in North Carolina:
It's been somewhat of a mystery why North Carolina, a conservative leaning state that went decidedly for George W. Bush in the last presidential election, has remained a Democratic stronghold at the state level. Tar Heel Democrats control the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature at a time when Republicans have been competitive and even dominant in bordering states and throughout the South.
But now it appears the Democrats' grip on power may be loosening amid a scandal that has members of his own party comparing Speaker of the State House Jim Black to Congressman Tom DeLay.
To make a long story short, it appears that Rep. Black bought control of the state House:
The State Board of Elections and the Wake County district attorney are looking into what prompted Republican Rep. Michael Decker to suddenly switch parties in 2003. The GOP had just won a one seat majority in the House. ...

Mr. Black's fundraising is legendary. In a state where $10,000 can make all the difference in a State House race, he's been able to amass a $1 million campaign war chest. ... Mr. Black apparently steered some $43,000 in campaign donations to Mr. Decker at about the time he switched parties.
Mr. Black's problems are even deeper -- and more interesting -- than Miniter suggests. See, Mr. Black is an optometrist and apparently controls a political action committee run by eye doctors. Guess what kind of legislation got pushed through the North Carolina state House?
Nearly a dozen local school boards sued the state Tuesday over a new law requiring comprehensive eye exams for children entering kindergarten. ...

[L]local schools representatives said the examinations, which cost from $65 to more than $120, are too expensive and unnecessary since children already must receive vision screenings before entering school.
"The effect of this new law is to put an unconstitutional price tag on admissions to public schools," said Ann Majestic of the North Carolina School Boards Association. ...

The law set aside $2 million to help parents pay for exams uncovered by Medicaid or other government programs. Opponents say that won't go very far. ...

While Gov. Mike Easley is listed among the lawsuit's defendants, the largest booster of the "Gov.'s Vision Care Program" has been House Speaker Jim Black, a Charlotte-area optometrist. The program was inserted into the House version of the budget last June and passed without even a public hearing. ...

Black received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from fellow optometrists during the 2003-04 election cycle. A State Board of Elections investigators said earlier this month that Black's campaign and the N.C. State Optometric Society's political action committee appear to have violated the law by filling in the payee line on incomplete checks from committee members.
Rather inconvenient, you see, for any N.C. Democrats who might want to jump aboard the Nancy Pelosi-Harry Reid "culture of corruption" campaign bandwagon. Hard to argue that Tarheels should elect Democrats to "clean up the mess in Washington" when the "mess in Raleigh" is all over the front page.
And interest in Mr. Black's electoral efforts has now spread beyond local authorities:
A federal grand jury may be interested in what optometrists know about incomplete checks they gave to the leader of their political action committee, which then sent them to candidates in an apparent violation of state law.
At least seven optometrists came to the federal courthouse Thursday -- the same day a grand jury convened to hear testimony. As they left, none of the optometrists would discuss whether they testified behind closed doors.
"Our clients are cooperating with the authorities," said Press Millen, an attorney for the optometrists and the North Carolina State Optometric Society PAC.
"Cooperating with the authorities"?! Something tells me that Mr. Black's $1 million campaign chest may be about to become a Legal Defense Fund.