Chips Fall In North Carolina
The nation's newest lottery may be more of a gamble than anybody thought.
For years, North Carolina has been the only state on the East Coast without a lottery. Now it has one: A law passed last August will finally give residents the chance this spring to start gambling to help pay for schools. But well before the games get underway, people in North Carolina have had reason to question whether taking up the gaming habit was worth it.
Meredith Norris helped promote the bill for Scientific Games, a leading lottery vendor based in Georgia. At the same time, she was acting as the unpaid political director for Jim Black, the state's Democratic House speaker. Once her dual role was exposed, she lost both jobs. Black also appointed a public relations consultant, Kevin Geddings, to the state's new lottery commission. It turned out that Geddings, too, had worked for Scientific Games and was an old friend of the company's chief lobbyist.
All of this has become fodder for numerous state and federal investigations that seem to involve as many characters as a Russian novel. In addition to the lottery mess, Black's office has been subpoenaed in a video poker investigation and has been accused of patronage abuses.
Given the competition between prosecutors and the media on the trail of fresh revelations, the Raleigh rumor mill has it that Black himself may be on the way out. "These investigations bring to light this influence-peddling culture," says John Hood, of the conservative John Locke Foundation. "The Jim Black story is really a much broader inquiry into how he ran his office and how his political machine influences state government."
Black has complained about a "politically motivated fishing expedition," and has convened a task force to speed implementation of a new lobbying disclosure law. "The U.S. Attorney's Office has told the speaker that he is not a target of the investigation," says Julie Robinson, Black's spokeswoman. She blames Geddings and Norris for not having told the speaker about their lobbying activities.
The fact that no charges have been brought--coupled with the fact that the whole story is so convoluted--has helped to keep Black's colleagues and much of the public in his corner. There have been some calls for his resignation, but the prevailing attitude among legislators and the public alike seems to be that they'll stick with the speaker unless and until someone can prove he broke the law. "Considering the situation," says Elon University pollster Hunter Bacot, "Black is weathering the storm pretty well."