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ALMA’S MONEY: Not for public review

by Jordan Green

Since the resignation of indicted House Speaker Jim Black and the initiation of an investigation of Rep. Thomas Wright, a prominent black Democratic lawmaker from Wilmington, by the state Board of Elections, scrutiny has turned to Rep. Alma Adams, whose district includes parts of Greensboro and eastern Guilford County.

Adams confirmed in a recent interview with YES! Weekly that she has requested an audit of the Legislative Black Caucus Foundation, of which she assumed leadership in January. The foundation’s primary expenditure is scholarships to students attending historically black colleges and universities. The foundation’s 2004 tax form – the most recent one available – showed that the foundation divvied up $77,000 among 11 different institutions, including NC A&T University and Bennett College.

The foundation also spent $167,304 on a so-called “caucus weekend” and a National Black Caucus for State Legislators convention, according to the group’s non-profit tax form. Both events included workshops open to members of the public.

Prior to Adams, Rep. Beverly Earle of Charlotte held the position of chair. Earle was the primary sponsor last year of the Credit Enhancement Services Act, seen by consumer advocates as a means for payday lending companies to once more operate legally in North Carolina. Another former chair is Wright, who is alleged to have failed to report $119,607 in campaign contributions over the past 15 years. Wright is accused of hiding contributions from the developers of a controversial landfill in Brunswick County so his support of it would not become a campaign issue in 2006.

Adams said the fact that she ordered an audit should not be taken as an indication of any concern about possible financial impropriety.

“For me an audit is something you do as routine,” she said. “We are in a transition. When you change administrations, that’s a healthy thing to do. I think you should even do it once a year. There was nothing peculiar about it.”

To be fair, most of the scrutiny of Adams and other Democratic lawmakers has come from Joe Sinsheimer, a Raleigh venture capitalist and longtime Democratic consultant, along with members of the state press corps who have used his complaints as fodder for investigative stories. Sinsheimer maintained the defunct JimBlackMustGo website, which focused an onslaught of unfriendly attention on the House speaker last year.

Sinsheimer and other open government advocates note that as a nonprofit, the Legislative Black Caucus Foundation is not required to reveal the names of contributors. That sets it apart from lawmakers’ campaign committees, which are required by law to file quarterly reports with itemized contribution lists.

In a letter dated April 18 Sinsheimer suggested that Adams’ disclosure of the names of donors to the Black Legislative Caucus Foundation would be taken as a good faith gesture.

“Disclosing the complete donor list to the state Board of Elections for open public inspection will allow North Carolina voters an opportunity to see which legislative interests have used the foundation to garner ‘good will’ with caucus members,” he wrote.

Adams told YES! Weekly in an April 20 interview that she doesn’t see any reason to release the donor list.

“I have been in office since January,” she said. “I haven’t had a chance to review any information. As far as I know the foundation is operating according to the law. There’s no investigation.”

Sinsheimer said in his letter that Rep. Wright’s “past service as an officer and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus puts the foundation directly in the spotlight.” He also expressed concern that substantial contributions from the NC Amusement Machine Association might have swayed black lawmakers to modify their votes in favor of the video poker industry.

Sinsheimer asked whether members of black caucuses solicited donations from subprime consumer finance companies in connection with a 2003 bill that would have allowed companies to charge consumers additional fees. Adams, incidentally, voted against the bill, and Gov. Mike Easley ultimately vetoed it.

“Today we are just beginning to understand the damage that has been done to North Carolina communities by poor underwriting practices in the subprime industry,” Sinsheimer wrote. “In this regard, it is critical that we understand the past legislative and campaign finance efforts of this industry, especially as subprime lenders and their lobbyists advocate for a controversial new legislative study.”

The nettlesome activist ended his missive by advising Adams that releasing a donor list for public inspection “would send a powerful signal in the post-Jim Black era that members of the Legislative Black Caucus want to operate with a greater degree of transparency and a keen eye on avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Adams said the scrutiny of the foundation makes her “a little bit angry.”

“The voters are interested in every foundation – black, white, blue, male and female,” she said. “There is no reason to [disclose the list]. Are we going to open up every foundation? Can you see that that’s a little discriminatory?”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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