Raleigh, N.C. — State House members voted overwhelmingly Thursday to expel state Rep. Thomas Wright for ethical misconduct – the first time in more than a century legislators have removed a sitting lawmaker from office.
Wright, D-New Hanover, who is accused of mishandling about $340,000 in campaign contributions, loans and charitable donations, was escorted from the House chamber after the 109-5 vote.
Wright joined Reps. Earl Jones, D-Guilford, Mary McAllister, D-Cumberland, Earline Parmon, D-Forsyth, and Larry Womble, D-Forsyth, in opposing the expulsion motion. All five are members of the Black Legislative Caucus.
Before the vote, Wright made his first public statement about the case, pleading with lawmakers to hold off on action until after he could defend himself against criminal fraud and obstruction of justice charges.
"I am innocent of the criminal charges before me. However, I need an opportunity to do that," he told House members Thursday. "This is less than an appropriate setting to do that."
Wright's criminal trial, which already has been delayed once, is tentatively scheduled for March 31. His attorneys said Thursday they would seek another delay.
He declined to comment after being removed from the House chamber, but his attorneys said they planned to appeal the expulsion in court.
"It is a prime example of a rush to judgment for a political decision that was made long before we met here," attorney Irving Joyner said.
A special House committee recently found that Wright violated several ethics rules:
- not reporting $180,000 in campaign contributions
- using his position to influence a state official to write a letter to help him obtain a $150,000 loan for a real estate deal in Wilmington
- diverting almost $19,000 in contributions and loans into his personal accounts when they were supposed to go to a nonprofit organization he directs
"This was an extraordinarily difficult process for everyone," state Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, the chairman of the legislative panel, said Thursday.
The committee set a high standard before determining that Wright had violated ethics rules, providing him with "super due process," Glazier said, before reciting a list of alleged wrongdoing by the eight-term Wilmington lawmaker, such as not reporting 40 percent of contributions over seven years.
"Rep. Wright engaged in improper, unethical and criminal conduct," Glazier said.
State Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, another member of the special committee, was more blunt in his assessment of Wright's actions, calling it "embezzlement." Money donated to Wright's nonprofit should never have wound up in his personal accounts, Stam said.
"Just because there's no bank account doesn't mean you put it in your own pocket," he said. "This kind of behavior is not acceptable to me, to you, to anyone."
Wright offered no explanation for his actions and never apologized for them, both Glazier and Stam said, which compelled the committee to call for Wright's ouster.
"This came down to a case of arrogance and deception, of abuse of office and fraud, of a moral compass abandoned and the rule of law discarded," he said.
Jones offered an amendment to change the expulsion recommendation to censure, but it failed by a 102-12 vote.
Jones said the standard of "clear and convincing" evidence used by the committee to determine wrongdoing was too low to merit the removal of an elected lawmaker. He also said the House shouldn't act before Wright faces a criminal trial based on the same allegations.
"In this democracy, a man is innocent until proven guilty," he said. "If he is exonerated in a court of law, is it fair that he should be denied office because of our actions here?"
Expulsion also "disenfranchises" voters in Wilmington, Jones said, noting they have the right to decide in the May 6 primary whether Wright should remain in office.
Wright has taken that same position, refusing to step down and maintaining only his constituents should decide his fate. He has filed for re-election to another term.
Glazier responded that serving in the General Assembly is a privilege and that Wilmington voters never knew of Wright's unreported contributions and other alleged misconduct.
"What is the (minimum) limit for expulsion?" he asked. "Whatever that limit is, it has long, long passed."
The General Assembly has expelled 11 members since its creation. The last was Josiah Turner of Hillsborough, who was censured and expelled in 1880 for improprieties and a disrespectful manner.
"It was a side of history I would have preferred not to be on," said state Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Wake. "In my opinion, the necessary actions were taken."
House Speaker Joe Hackney said Wright never offered an explanation for the allegations against him, which left the House with no choice but expulsion.
"As distasteful as it was, we had to do what we had to do," state Rep. Ronnie Sutton, D-Robeson, said of Wright's expulsion.
Two Democratic Party leaders from New Hanover County and another two from Pender County have been appointed to nominate someone to fill Wright's House seat. Gov. Mike Easley could either approve or reject the choice.
If Wright is acquitted of the criminal charges and wins re-election, he could rejoin the House next January – unless lawmakers again vote to remove him.