State News

Criminal Trial of Expelled Lawmaker Begins

Posted March 30, 2008
Updated March 31, 2008

— Jury selection got under way Monday in the criminal trial of former Rep. Thomas Wright for alleged campaign-finance and loan fraud.

Wright became the first state legislator thrown out of office by his colleagues for misconduct in 128 years and could now face up to 11 years of prison time if convicted of felony fraud charges.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry Hight denied a motion from Wright's attorney, Douglas Harris, to postpone the trial of the Wilmington Democrat. Wright's trial has already been delayed once.

Harris cited the the intense attention that surrounded Wright's recent removal from the House, but Hight noted the only attention the case was getting Monday came from the reporters gathered in the courtroom to watch.

Hight did agree with a defense motion to have Wright solely on four fraud charges.

However, he denied an attempt by Harris to have the charge of obstruction of justice – focusing on about 400 campaign contributions that prosecutors say were not reported – against Wright dismissed.

Hight ruled that the obstruction of justice charge was unrelated to the fraud charges. Wright could still stand trial for obstruction of justice later.

Wright was indicted in December on charges he obtained fraudulently $160,000 in bank loans and pocketed another $190,000 in contributions meant for his campaign or a health foundation he led in Wilmington.

A House committee investigating almost identical accusations based on the indictments found earlier this month there was clear and convincing evidence that he committed ethical misconduct. On March 20, the full House voted by a count of 109-5 to expel him.

The eight-term lawmaker is challenging the expulsion in court, arguing that legislators violated his constitutional rights in part by removing him based on a lower threshold of evidence than in a criminal proceeding.

Wright, 52, has denied the allegations against him but says he will finally get to explain why he believes he is innocent. He declined to offer evidence in the legislative proceedings for fear of revealing his strategy to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, according to his attorneys.

Willoughby, who is trying the case himself, has said he wants to complete the trial, which could last a week or longer, sooner rather than later so as not to interfere with the May 6 primary.

Despite his expulsion, Wright is still running for his old 18th District seat and faces two other Democrats in the primary. However, Wright would be disqualified from returning to the Legislature if he is convicted of a felony.

It should not be too hard to seat a jury that can judge Wright fairly despite the publicity surrounding his expulsion and details released about his alleged misconduct, Willoughby argued last week.

"I expect most folks haven't paid attention to what's going on," he said in an interview. "They probably didn't have the luxury of having the information or forming opinions about that."


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  • beachboater Apr 1, 2008

    "You cannot serve in the NC House if you are a convicted felon."

    But you can as long as you are an unconvicted felon.

    Doesn't seem fair does it. You can stay in after you commit a felony, but not after you are convicted.

    Should be an instant out. You shouldn't need a higher standard to convict a member of state government. The standard should be MUCH lower.

  • VT1994Hokie Mar 31, 2008

    I agree with icfdirector. For those five to vote in his favor--they are totally out-of-kilter. They are just protecting one of their own. This is a shame. He is truly guilty. Why can't anyone that can read figure this out? It is a waste of time and energy. Move on.

  • VT1994Hokie Mar 31, 2008

    This case is no different than Jim Black, Meg Scott, or any of the others that went down with the Black case. He truly thinks that he is above the law, as I have written a few weeks previously. He was so smug in his earlier dates in court. He has softened this image a little of late.

    This is a total waste of time, and taxpayers dollars. There are more important issues to deal with in our Court System. Send him on his way.

  • retired and luv it Mar 31, 2008

    Go ahead and give him a room in the North Carolina Wing of a Federal prison with the rest of our illustrious group of politicians.

  • OLD PIRATE 2 Mar 31, 2008

    Love One another: Your thoughts are just what Mr. Wright hopes for. That one person will keep the other 11 from finding him guilty. Please consider the facts of this case..They have the proof that he took and used money not intended for his personal use. That is no error in judgement. Be honest with yourself, this isn't about anything but dishonesty and he needs to pay the price.

  • ifcdirector Mar 31, 2008

    They should put the other five legislators on trial and out the door too for believing and endorsing the type of behavior he engaged in as ethical and appropriate for a legislator in this state. Perhaps tar and feathering needs to return?

  • Heatherbrook Mar 31, 2008

    Look has gone from SMIRk to somber.

  • Dr. Dataclerk Mar 31, 2008

    Hurry up and send this person on to prison for about 25-30 years. He is guilty as sin.

  • WRAL is joe_dirt Mar 31, 2008

    Once convicted, he'll be in a place that will teach him a whole new trade, probably in exchange for teaching his own to others.

  • flipper59 Mar 31, 2008

    stealing cheating at all levels