Newly elected Democrat State Chairman – and Howard Dean supporter – Jerry Meek has sounded off on behalf of besieged House Speaker Jim Black. Meek says:
“There have been no allegations of wrongdoing against Jim Black and it’s a shame Joe Sinsheimer [the Democratic consultant who set up www.Blackmustgo.com] put his time and energy into something negative. Character assassination, totally devoid of allegations of wrongdoing, is not the way to treat a man who has served, and will continue to serve, our state well.”
Jerry Meek must be the only Democrat State Chairman in history to not read newspapers. Because – whether you agree with them or not – one thing that’s sure is the newspapers have been full of allegations about Speaker Black.
Among other things, they have alleged Black appointed a paid agent of lottery vendor Scientific Games to the Lottery Commission (which awards the contracts). A central figure in the newspaper accounts is lobbyist (and Black’s unpaid political director) Meredith Norris.
What the newspapers have reported goes like this: Black would suggest to groups they hire Norris; Norris would lobby Black for whatever the groups wanted; then Norris would solicit the groups for contributions to Black’s political organizations. None of which – by the way – is illegal and all of which has also been going on in North Carolina politics – both Democrat and Republican – for years.
Anyway, right now, Speaker Black is being pounded for doing all these things – but the irony is the roots of this scandal run far deeper.
I am going to sound partisan now, so, let me say up front Republicans’ hands are not clean either. Patronage (rewarding contributors with state jobs), giving contracts to political allies, and building roads based on politics has deeper roots in North Carolina Democratic politics than just Jim Black.
Former Governor Hunt, way back in his first two terms, never had any qualms about appointing contributors to key posts on the Highway Commission. In fact, it was sometimes hard to tell if the Highway Commission was there to build roads or serve as Hunt’s fundraising committee.
But under Hunt there were limits. And it’s the limits on what I could call ‘Legal Graft’ that have changed. Today, things are done I don’t think even Jim Hunt would have tolerated Whether he considered them an embarrassment (as in, ‘Don’t embarrass the Governor’) or had a moral aversion to them, under Hunt they were unacceptable.
Marc Basnight changed that.
Basnight’s capacity for embarrassment has turned out to be practically non-existent. He extended – some would say did away with – the limits on ‘Legal Graft’. For instance, Senator Basnight and his family own a construction company. When the town of Engelhard wanted to build a sewer system Basnight got them $5 million from the state to pay for it. Then he was glad to have Basnight Construction help build the sewer system. All that is perfectly legal, too.
Under Basnight, not just patronage, but state but contracts, legislation, and state grants have all been politicized. Corporations get ‘incentives’ –special tax exemptions – from the legislature and then they – or their members - got solicited for contributions by legislators.
Unfortunately, when Republicans had their brief sojourn in power in the House (1994-1998) their attitude wasn’t, ‘Let’s put a stop to all this’ – it was, ‘Oh boy. Now it’s our turn.’
When Black came to power in 1998 he stepped right into that world. Is it any wonder that seven years later we find he’s been playing by the same rules as Basnight and his Republican predecessors – though it appears less adroit.
The irony of this scandal will be if Marc Basnight (who is sounding more like a good government reformer these days) walks away unscathed. Or, if, even worse he just lays low until the storm passes and then continues to do business as usual.
So, what can be done?
It’s hard to feel sorry for a lobbyist. But the fact is the lobbyists didn’t turn themselves into political fundraisers because they enjoy asking people for money. The legislators turned them into fundraisers. After all, what real choice does a lobbyist have when he or she goes to see a legislator for a client and the first words out of the legislator’s mouth are: ‘By the way, I’m having a fundraiser. Could you raise $25,000?’
That’s an abuse that’s easy to stop. Make it illegal for lobbyists to raise money (or give money) to legislators. And to close the loophole completely make it illegal for anyone who hires a lobbyist to raise (or give) money to a legislator. In other words if you want something out of the state there can’t even be the appearance of a quid pro quo.
That would make it impossible for Meredith Norris or Scientific Games to do one thing to help Senator Tony Rand or any other legislator to get him to put language in the lottery bill for them.
I know that is a limit on lobbyists’ (and their clients) freedom of speech and, yes, that is troubling. But the one steadfast justification the Courts have recognized for limiting political contributions is to eliminate corruption.
The same law should apply to anyone bidding on or receiving state contracts, or state grants, or incentives from the state. And no government appointee – like a highway commissioner – should be allowed to raise or give money to a politician.
This will eliminate a lot of corruption and the ninety-nine percent of the people of North Carolina who don’t lobby the government for special favors will still be free to contribute to their legislators.
The source of corruption in a democracy is simple. John Adams identified it two hundred years ago. Government has money and power and people are naturally going to want to get their hands on that money and power to help themselves – at the expense of other people. The simple way to limit corruption is to say to anyone who wants to dip their hands into the public treasury – make your case but we are going to prohibit you from doing anything in return to help the legislators holding the purse strings.