Local Politics

Witnesses: Wright Took Nonprofit Money, Didn't Report Contributions

Posted March 5, 2008 8:26 a.m. EST
Updated March 5, 2008 10:27 p.m. EST

— Two witnesses told a legislative panel Wednesday that state Rep. Thomas Wright pocketed corporate donations to a foundation he directs and failed to report numerous campaign contributions.

The testimony came in the third day of hearings into ethical misconduct allegations against Wright, D-New Hanover. He is accused of mishandling about $350,000 in campaign contributions, loans and charitable donations.

State Bureau of Investigation Agent Johnnie Umphlet said he interviewed Wright twice about the New Hanover Community Health Foundation. Wright admitted depositing checks to the foundation from AT&T and drug maker Astra Zeneca into his personal account, Umphlet said.

Wright described the moves as payments for his work to get the foundation going, Umphlet said. "He had put in a lot of work and sweat equity to get the foundation started," he testified.

The New Hanover County lawmaker also solicited a donation from Anheuser-Busch for the foundation, Umphlet said. The three corporate donations totaled about $8,900.

Kim Strach, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, testified that her office began examining Wright's campaign and personal bank accounts a year ago after a political watchdog questioned Wright's reporting of contributions from a company seeking to open a landfill near Wilmington.

The elections board decided to hold a hearing on Wright's finances "when we saw the magnitude of expenditures not disclosed," Strach said. "In my time at the state board, I've never audited a (campaign) committee that had this amount of non-disclosure."

Strach's staff created a spreadsheet at the request of Wake County prosecutors and determined Wright failed to disclose $185,000 in campaign contributions, she said.

"In my mind, I could not believe it was a mistake," she said, noting Wright deposited many of the campaign checks himself. "It was not an error, not a mistake."

The legislative committee could recommend to the full House that Wright be censured or expelled. The General Assembly hasn't removed a lawmaker from office since the 1880s.

Wright, who also faces criminal charges stemming from the same allegations, has denied any wrongdoing. His attorney has said Wright is guilty of nothing more than sloppy bookkeeping and has argued that the legislator is being persecuted because he is black.