In N.C., Scandal Arrives Before New State Lottery

By Mark Johnson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 30, 2005

RALEIGH, N.C. -- When North Carolina's legislature relented from its decades-long opposition to a state lottery this summer, preachers and conservative lawmakers warned that wherever gambling goes, scandal follows.

Even they never predicted it would arrive so fast.

North Carolina, which until now was one of the few states without a lottery, will not begin its games until spring, but already state and federal criminal investigations are looking into whether the measure's passage was tainted by corruption.

State House Speaker Jim Black (D) is in the midst of a controversy over his role and that of a top aide who turned out to be working for a firm hoping to land the contract to run the lottery. Black has been compiling boxes of documents that have been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury examining how the lottery won approval.

Three of the nine lottery commissioners, meanwhile, resigned within a month of their appointments. One stepped down two days before testifying to the grand jury, and another bowed out after it was revealed that he received $24,500 from the same firm that hired the speaker's aide.

"We've never had, in anybody's memory, certainly not in the past 100 years, we've not had anything like this," said former House speaker Joe Mavretic (D).

The lottery imbroglio is emitting a strong odor of backroom, back-scratching politics over a state that traditionally has fancied itself enjoying a more honest, more modern government than the rest of the South.

"This is a stain," said Andrew Taylor, a political analyst at North Carolina State University. "We've not been a state run by a few strongarm leaders. It's been more inclusive and transparent than in most other Southern states. That's been a sort of badge of honor."

This self-image is one reason that North Carolina -- the last state on the East Coast without a lottery -- resisted for years the easy revenue that flows from public games. The anti-lottery coalition included conservatives, who decried the morality of making the state a numbers runner, and liberals, who bemoaned that lotteries earn much of their money by exploiting strike-it-rich fantasies of the poor.

In 2001, a recession arrived, and some of the resistance departed. Mike Easley (D), the new governor, was the first chief executive to endorse a lottery.

That same year, South Carolina created its game, luring players across the state line. Two years later it was Tennessee's turn. North Carolina, struggling to balance budgets, was surrounded by lotteries, and Easley's appeals were resonating more widely. North Carolinians, he said, were playing other states' lotteries and paying for their schools.

This year, Democrats, who control the General Assembly, shoehorned the lottery through the House but faced a one-vote deficit in the Senate. Democratic Senate leaders, who had declared their business done and sent members home, abruptly called them back a week later during the absence of two Republicans. The game passed.

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