Local Politics

Defense: Prosecutors Play Politics With Wright's Trial

Posted January 28, 2008 11:47 a.m. EST
Updated January 29, 2008 9:25 a.m. EST

— A state lawmaker wants to delay his trial on fraud and obstruction of justice charges, saying the case is being expedited because of politics.

State Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, has been charged with five counts of obtaining property by false pretense and one count of obstruction of justice in connection with unreported campaign contributions and two allegedly fraudulent loans.

Defense attorney Douglas Harris lobbied Monday for a summer trial, but Superior Court Judge Henry Hight set a trial date for March 3, which was the preference of prosecutors.

Harris contended the state was pushing the earlier trial date so lawmakers would know the outcome of the criminal case before they decide how to pursue an ethics case against Wright.

A panel of state lawmakers recently found probable cause to believe Wright took part in campaign finance and loan fraud in violation of legislative ethics rules.

Lawmakers also have set a March 3 date for Wright's ethics trial, according to House Speaker Joe Hackney's office. It's unclear whether one proceeding would have to be delayed so Wright and his attorneys could attend both.

"You have to wonder why this non-violent crime is being rushed along," Harris said, noting numerous people are sitting in jail awaiting trial on murder, rape and other more serious charges. "Politics has no business in a case. Politics has no business determining when a court date is held – none whatsoever."

Harris invoked the name of Mike Nifong several times during the brief court hearing Monday morning as an example of the harm that comes from mixing politics and the judicial system.

Nifong was forced to resign as Durham County district attorney, lost his law license and had to serve a one-day jail sentence for his handling of sexual assault allegations against members of the Duke University lacrosse team.

Wright declined to comment on his case, except to say that he wants it resolved fairly.

" I have the ultimate confidence in my attorney and in the process. I look forward to the process moving along," he said.

The charges against Wright stem from:

  • $185,000 in campaign donations authorities said weren't reported
  • Allegations that the lawmaker used 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
  • Accusations that he diverted almost $19,000 in contributions and loans into his personal accounts when they were supposed to go to a nonprofit organization he directs.

Harris has said that Wright was guilty of nothing more than sloppy bookkeeping.

Wright has refused to resign, saying voters should determine if he remains in office. He recently announced plans to run for re-election.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby cited Wright's effort to remain in office for his decision to seek a March trial.

"With him having announced his intention to run for re-election, I did not want this matter to be unresolved and interfere with the electoral process," Willoughby wrote in a Jan. 15 letter to Harris. "I am also aware that an administrative proceeding is in the process in the legislative branch of government, and I would like for the criminal case to be resolved without delay or interfering in their process."

Willoughby said Monday that the earlier trial date was in the public's best interest and had nothing to with politics.

"We're not rushing it, but we are trying to move it as quickly as we can because we think there is significant public interest in getting this resolved," he said. "It's not done for the benefit of the legislature; it's done for the benefit of the public."

Harris said he intends to get two charges dismissed. One of the fraud charges was technically wrong in the indictment, he said, and as far as he knows, no one in the U.S. has been charged with common law obstruction of justice.

If lawmakers convict Wright of ethics violations, a special session would be called to determine whether he should be removed from office. No lawmaker has been expelled from the General Assembly since the 1880s.