Local Politics

Panel: Wright Should Be Expelled for Misconduct

Posted March 6, 2008 11:18 a.m. EST
Updated March 7, 2008 1:10 p.m. EST

— A legislative panel Thursday recommended that state Rep. Thomas Wright, D-New Hanover, be removed from office for mishandling about $340,000 in campaign contributions, loans and charitable donations.

The full House will have to hold a special session to vote on whether to remove Wright from office. The General Assembly has not expelled a sitting lawmaker since 1880.

"He has, in my opinion, disregarded his oath of office, disgraced the House of Representatives and dishonored himself by his conduct," said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, who chaired the special legislative ethics committee.

After four days of testimony – in which Wright's side did not present any evidence – the panel found Wright guilty of six counts of ethical misconduct, including not reporting $180,000 in campaign contributions.

"(There is) overwhelming evidence supporting this count, and there is no reasonable alternative," Glazier said. "Indeed, almost no attack was made, no evidence was presented to justify, even in closing arguments, any of these violations."

Witnesses told the legislative panel Wednesday that Wright pocketed $8,900 in corporate donations to a foundation he directs and failed to report another $185,000 in campaign contributions. That latter amount was reduced to $180,000 on Thursday after a State Board of Elections official determined three contributions in question had been properly reported.

"At some point, Representative Wright went astray. Why, we don't know," Willaim Hart, a senior deputy attorney general, said.

Wright's lawyers said they chose not to present any evidence to protect their legal strategy for Wright's upcoming crimminal trial on similar charges. The attorneys did, however, repeatedly question how prosecution witnesses arrived at their conclusions.

Defense attorney Irving Joyner said he believed Kim Strach, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, made assumptions about what she found as she reviewed Wright's campaign-finance records.

Strach said Wright would report making payments to people, but the amounts listed in campaign reports did not match those on canceled checks. He also mingled personal and campaign funds, she said, which raises flags for investigators.

In closing arguments, Deputy Attorney General Bill Hart said evidence presented during the four-day hearing clearly proved Wright engaged in unethical and improper conduct.

"What we have seen is evidence of fraud. What we have seen is a violation of trust," Hart said. "What we have presented to you is a striking pattern of impropriety."

Joyner said in his closing arguments that the information presented by the state was murky and unclear.

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.

The General Assembly has expelled 11 members since its creation. The last was Josiah Turner of Hillsborough, who was censured and expelled in 1880 for improprieties and a disrespectful manner.