Local Politics

State Lawmaker Indicted on 6 Charges

Posted December 10, 2007 4:09 p.m. EST
Updated December 10, 2007 8:36 p.m. EST

— State Rep. Thomas Wright was indicted Monday in connection with unreported campaign donations and two loans, authorities said.

Wright, D-New Hanover, was indicted on five counts of obtaining property by false pretense and one count of obstruction of justice – all felonies.

Wright couldn't be reached for comment. He previously said he had no intention of stepping down, saying voters should decide whether he remains in office.

"These are important matters, and we felt it warranted investigation by the (State) Board of Elections and by the (State Bureau of Investigation), and the grand jury has now acted on it," Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said.

The Board of Elections initiated an investigation into Wright's campaign finances following an allegation a year ago by political consultant-turned-watchdog Joe Sinsheimer that Wright and his campaign committee delayed the disclosure of $41,000 in campaign donations.

Wright, a former ally of disgraced former House Speaker Jim Black, declined to testify before the board in May, when investigators also questioned more than $119,000 that political committees reported giving to Wright's campaign since 1992 but that the campaign never identified as receiving.

The obstruction of justice charge handed up Monday by a Wake County grand jury is in connection with $185,000 in unreported campaign donations.

"I think there's been a culture of entitlement that has developed on Jones Street with the General Assembly," Sinsheimer said.

Three charges of obtaining property by false pretense stem from checks that were made out to New Hanover Community Health Foundation, which Wright directs, but that wound up in his personal bank account in 2003 and 2004. The checks, which totaled $8,900, were from AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals, Anheuser-Busch and AT&T.

"I think it's a new day in North Carolina. Basically our legal system is saying enough is enough, we've had enough," Sinsheimer said. "It's embarrassing that Thomas Wright is still a member of the General Assembly. They've had a year to kick him out."

House Speaker Joe Hackney issued a statement Monday afternoon noting state lawmakers adopted ethics reforms in the last session.

"It's disappointing any time an elected official is accused of wrongdoing, but the allegations in this case date back several years and don't reflect on the many good things we did this past legislative session," Hackney said in the statement. "I look forward to continuing to move ahead and doing the people's business in a way that will make them proud."

A fourth charge of obtaining property by false pretenses is in connection with Wright's 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 Wright's foundation obtain a loan to buy the building. The letter suggested $150,000 in state financing would back the museum project, though 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 fifth charge of final obtaining property by false pretenses was related to a 2001 loan for $9,980 that Wright took out in the foundation's name but that authorities said never got to the nonprofit organization.

"The SBI investigation determined that Representative Thomas Wright took money belonging to The Community's Health Foundation Inc. on multiple occasions," SBI Special Agent Rufus Williams said in an affidavit to support a search warrant for Wright's bank records in connection with the 2001 loan.