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New judge doesn’t care for rule of law

During a weeklong seminar for newly elected judges in December, Bill Belk posed a delicate question: Can judges In North Carolina sit on corporate boards? Having been a director of Charlotte-based car dealer Sonic Automotive Inc. for 10 years, he had a keen interest in the answer. Forbes magazine also listed him as a vice president and director for Monroe Hardware Co. “The advice I gave him during the class was that if it’s a business concern, he’d have to resign,” says Paul Ross, executive director of the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission. “He expressed that he thought that was not a good rule.”

Belk, grandson of the founder of the Belk department store chain, was sworn in Jan. 1 as a district court judge in Mecklenburg County. A month into his term, he still held a seat on Sonic’s board, and most of those involved are loathe to speak publicly about what appears to be a breach of judicial ethics — as well as a minor public-relations problem for the companies involved. Beyond his encounter with Belk last year, Ross refused to discuss particulars, including whether any complaints have been filed against Belk. Steve Coss, Sonic’s general counsel, declined comment. Neither Belk nor Monroe Hardware President Greg Allred returned phone calls.

The state code of judicial ethics says judges “should not serve as an officer, director or manager of any business,” though they can manage their own investments and serve on nonprofit boards. Belk is expected to challenge the rule, and its use of “should” instead of “shall” could be a point of contention. But such a narrow focus on the rule’s wording would ignore commission practice, Ross says. “While it is aspirational, maybe, in some of the phraseology used, when it comes to disciplinary proceedings it has been interpreted as obligatory.”

In November, Belk defeated incumbent Ben Thalheimer, who had presided over part of Belk’s divorce. Belk also had worked in the investment-banking operations of Brevard-based Carolina Financial Group LLC. His Web site touts his extensive education and community involvement but says little about his experience in practicing law. Earlier this year, Carolina Financial cut ties with Belk, though it was under no regulatory pressure to do so, CEO Bruce Roberts says. “We’re not conducting any investment banking, so there’s no reason to continue that relationship.”

If Belk is forced to choose, and he picks his seat on the bench over the one on Sonic’s board, he could take a pay cut — new district court judges make $109,372 a year — but the salary isn’t subject to the market’s vagaries. In 2007, the latest year for which figures are available, Sonic paid him $88,500 and stock valued at $62,265. Since then, with car sales plummeting, Sonic shares have lost more than 90% of their value.

CLEVELAND — With demand for trucks and cars plummeting, Daimler Trucks North America will cut more than 2,100 jobs at three North Carolina Freightliner factories this month, including more than 1,300 here. The Portland, Ore.-based company also will close a plant in Mount Holly, idling about 600, and cut about 275 jobs at its plant in Gastonia. About 700 will continue to work here and 575 in Gastonia.

CLEVELAND — Joplin, Mo.-based Auto Truck Transport plans to lay off 150 of 275 employees by the end of the month. It blamed production cuts at Freightliner.

HICKORYCommScope will cut 230 workers from plants in Catawba and Statesville by midyear. It blamed flagging global demand for its telecommunications equipment. It still will employ more than 600 in Catawba, about 130 in Statesville and about 1,900 statewide.

HICKORYCorning Cable Systems will close one of its plants by the end of the year, idling an undisclosed number of workers. Some will transfer to a larger plant nearby. The company, part of New York-based Corning, employs about 1,400 here making fiber-optic and copper cable.

BELMONTR.L. Stowe closed its four plants. The 108-year-old textile company employed about 200 at two mills in its hometown and 300 more in Tennessee.

GASTONIAParkdale Mills plans to close a plant here by the end of the month, idling about 75. It still has 25 mills and about 2,300 employees in the U.S., Central America and South America. Twelve of the plants and about 1,240 of the workers are in North Carolina.

CHARLOTTERuddick is slowing expansion of its Harris Teeter grocery chain. Last summer, it planned to open 19 stores and remodel eight in 2009. It recently revised that to 16 openings and three remodelings. The company also owns Mount Holly-based thread maker American & Efird.

CHARLOTTEUnited Way of Central Carolinas cut 30% of its full-time staff, leaving it with around 70 employees. The nonprofit also will use about $5 million from its reserve fund to make up for a 43.6% drop in contributions after complaints concerning former CEO Gloria Pace King’s compensation. It raised $25.4 million last year.

MAIDENGetrag laid off 141 of its 500 employees here. The company, part of Germany-based Getrag Corporate Group, makes axles for automakers, including struggling General Motors and Chrysler.

CONCORDPhilip Morris USA laid off 140 employees as part of a factory closing scheduled for the end of next year. The Richmond, Va.-based cigarette maker still employs 1,385 here.

NEWTONGoldToeMoretz laid off 56 employees, leaving it with about 500. The sock manufacturer was formed in 2006 when Moretz acquired Burlington-based Gold Toe Brands.

CHARLOTTEUS Airways asked the U.S. Department of Transportation for permission to begin daily flights to Rio de Janeiro this fall. The Tempe, Ariz.-based carrier would use a 204-passenger Boeing 767. It would be the first daily nonstop service between the Queen City and South America.

HUNTERSVILLE — Dick Johnson, 61, will retire next month as CEO but remain chairman of American Tire Distributors Holdings. President William Berry, 54, will add the CEO job.

MONROEUnion County laid off about 40 employees, leaving it with more than 1,000. Officials hope to save $13 million from the layoffs and other spending cuts. They will use $2 million from the county’s reserves to make up the rest of a projected $15 million deficit.

MORGANTONShadowline closed its plant here, idling 85. The lingerie maker blamed foreign competition.

CHARLOTTETitan Technology Partners acquired Reading, England-based Intalec Partnership to broaden its base of international clients. Terms were not disclosed. Both are information-technology consultants. Titan employs about 75 at its headquarters.