Local Politics

SBI Looks Into Finances of Lawmaker's Nonprofit

Posted August 21, 2007 6:21 p.m. EDT
Updated August 21, 2007 7:07 p.m. EDT

— A state lawmaker already is under investigation for possible campaign finance violations is also being investigated in connection with a fraudulent real estate deal.

The State Bureau of Investigation executed a search warrant at Coastal Federal Bank on June 25 and seized records of New Hanover Community Health Center. State Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, chairs the organization's board of directors.

An affidavit filed by SBI Special Agent Rufus Williams states that the records are being examined as part of an investigation into obtaining property by false pretense. The probe is linked to the purchase of a building for a museum dedicated to the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot.

Torlen Wade, the director of the state Office of Rural Health Development, wrote a letter in March 2002 to help Community Health Center obtain a loan to buy the building. The letter suggested $150,000 in state financing would back the museum project when both Wade and Wright knew that wasn't the case.

Wade had regular contact with Wright, who served as chairman of a House health committee, and he told state elections board investigators that he later regretted writing the letter.

The elections board started examining Wright's campaign finances after Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic consultant, alleged in December that Wright and his campaign broke elections law by delaying the disclosure of $41,000 in campaign donations.

The board also looked into more than $119,000 that political committees reported giving to Wright's campaign since 1992 – money the campaign didn't identify receiving.

Wright, a former ally of disgraced former House Speaker Jim Black, refused to testify at a May hearing by the elections board. After the hearing, the board voted to turn the findings of its investigation into Wright over to the Wake County District Attorney's Office for possible criminal charges.

Wright hasn't answered a certified letter from the elections board to turn over his latest campaign finance reports.

"This has been the behavior pattern every step of the way, so I think he's doing it for purpose," said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the elections board.

Bartlett said the board plans to deliver the demand by hand.

"If he does not comply, then his (campaign) committee will be shut down where he cannot take any more contributions, and it will be turned over to the district attorney of jurisdiction," he said.

Wright couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday. He has refused to step down, saying voters should decide whether he remains in office.

Leaders with the legislative Ethics Committee announced during the recent session of the General Assembly that they would conduct an investigation, but no action has been taken to date.

"Saying that someone should resign is one thing. Taking official action and expelling them is a different thing," Sinsheimer said. "I think its an insult to the people of North Carolina that Thomas Wright continues to draw a paycheck."