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An open window for reform 

The controversy swirling around the lottery commission has done more than just focus attention on the activities of House Speaker Jim Black, his former staff member Meredith Norris, and former lottery commission member Kevin Geddings.

It has opened up a window into the world of big money and politics, and the view may force lawmakers to finally make reforms in the system that will have far greater impact than cleaning up the lottery commission.

At every turn, money and access are involved. Black says he appointed Kevin Geddings to the lottery commission after Charlotte lawyer Bob Cordle declined the appointment because Gov. Mike Easley wanted Cordle to stay on the Board of Elections.

Like many appointees, Cordle contributed money to political campaigns: $10,300 to Democratic candidates for state office in 2004, $4,000 to Easley, $2,000 to Black. Geddings, by the way, gave Easley $1,000, Sen. Malcolm Graham $1,500 and Black $250. Easley appointed Geddings to the North Carolina Film Commission.

Check virtually any important state board or commission and you will find people who contributed money to the politicians who appointed them or who were recommended by big donors and fundraisers.

Norris is being investigating for failing to register as a lobbyist for lottery firm Scientific Games when it appears she was lobbying legislators on the company's behalf. But Norris was also helping raise money for Black at the same time she was on the lottery company's payroll.

That is not illegal or uncommon. Recent media reports have included many accounts of lobbyists raising money for lawmakers, even hosting the event in their homes.

Lobbyists are prohibited from making campaign contributions during the legislative session, but they are a prime source of contributions when the session is over.

Top-ranked lobbyist Don Beason gave $28,750 to candidates in 2004--$4,000 each to Black, Rep. Bill Culpepper, Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and Speaker Pro Tem Richard Morgan. It is as if influential lobbyists pay admission to be a member of the exclusive power and influence club.

Black and Basnight stay in power in part because of the money they raise and then funnel to the state party to help candidates for the House and Senate. Last year, Basnight gave the state party $1.3 million. Black gave $700,000. Black also runs a national committee that gave the state party $400,000.

The ultimate solution is to greatly diminish the corrupting influence of big money from the system by providing public financing of campaigns. Public financing is already available to candidates for appellate judgeships, and a bill is before the House that would provide it to candidates for Council of State offices, excluding the races for governor and lieutenant governor.

In the short run, the lottery scandals ought to at least encourage legislators to consider a few simple reforms when the General Assembly reconvenes in May. South Carolina and Kentucky ban registered lobbyists from raising money for legislators. Several states ban lobbyists from contributing to legislative campaigns entirely.

State party committees could be limited in how much they can contribute to another committee or to a candidate, ending the practice of wealthy donors in Raleigh spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to decide who represents a county in the mountains or the coast. There are plenty of other changes that would help while the push for public financing continues.

The lottery mess has focused public attention on the inherent but generally legal corruption in a system in which laws and appointments are clearly influenced by money. The challenge is to turn that attention into reform. There has never been clearer evidence of the need.

More by Chris Fitzsimon


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