Local Politics

Judge Stymies Wright's Bid to Head Off Ethics Hearing

Posted February 28, 2008 4:42 p.m. EST
Updated February 28, 2008 10:37 p.m. EST

— A judge on Thursday refused to stop a legislative committee from meeting next week to review allegations of misconduct against a Wilmington lawmaker.

State Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, faces ethics charges in connection with his handling of more than $350,000 in campaign donations, loans and charitable money.

The Legislative Ethics Committee plans to begin hearings into the allegations Monday. Those could lead to a vote in the General Assembly to censure or expel Wright.

Wright on Wednesday filed a motion to delay the hearing, claiming it could taint potential jurors and hinder his defense in a pending criminal trial.

He was indicted in December on five counts of obtaining property by false pretense and one count of obstruction of justice. The charges 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

Wright's criminal trial also was set to begin next week, but a judge on Monday postponed it to give Wright's attorney more time to prepare.

Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway refused to do likewise with the ethics hearing, agreeing with lawyers from the state Attorney General's Office that the ethics allegations need to be resolved.

"There clearly is a strong interest for the people of North Carolina and for the General Assembly itself to have this matter resolved," Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters said. "They have a right to have that resolved, to have that taken off the table."

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

Wright's attorney, Irving Joyner, argued that the lawmaker would suffer "irreparable harm" if the ethics hearing proceeds as scheduled. He dismissed the idea of Wright invoking his constitutional right not to speak at the hearing, saying, "If he is forced to plead the Fifth (Amendment right), it means somehow he is culpable."

Joyner also tried to argue that the General Assembly doesn't have the right to discipline its members, especially since the allegations against Wright weren't connected to his duties as a legislator and occurred several years ago.

"We think it's just crystal clear that, under the law of North Carolina, the General Assembly has the power to discipline its members," Peters replied.