Local Politics

Wright Denies Committing Fraud

Posted April 3, 2008 11:23 a.m. EDT
Updated April 3, 2008 11:51 p.m. EDT

— Former state Rep. Thomas Wright on Thursday offered a much-anticipated explanation to defend himself against allegations that he schemed to obtain a $150,000 loan and pocketed contributions to a nonprofit.

The Wilmington Democrat, who was expelled from the House last month for ethical misconduct, is charged with four counts of fraud. Jurors were expected to get the case Friday, and Wright faces nearly 10 years in prison if convicted on all four felony counts.

The charges stem from $8,900 in corporate donations to a health care foundation Wright operated that wound up in his personal account and from a $150,000 loan that prosecutors said he obtained illegally.

When House members overwhelmingly voted to oust Wright from office, many expressed dismay that he never tried to explain his actions.

Wright, who is seeking to have his expulsion overturned in court, called the criminal case against him politically motivated because he didn't support a Democratic candidate for state Senate.

"I wasn't the typical Democrat," he testified. "I didn't support the entire Democratic ticket, so it made some people very upset."

On Tuesday, a former state health official and a bank loan officer testified about a $150,000 loan Wright received in 2002 to buy a Wilmington building for a museum dedicated to the 1898 race riots.

The state official said Wright asked him to write a letter claiming a state grant would pay off the loan when both men knew no grant existed. The loan officer said he didn't require the letter to approve the loan.

Wright insisted Thursday that he never used the letter to obtain the loan. He also said he had little to do with setting up the financing that led to the purchase of the building.

"Wasn't there a sense of urgency because you needed this letter for the bank? You didn't need the money but you needed the letter to show the bank?" Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby asked.

"No, sir, absolutely not," Wright replied.

He pointed out that the letter was written 10 days after the loan was approved and that the building was valued at more than the loan value.

Lobbyists for Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals testified Wednesday that their checks to the Community Health Foundation were never intended as gifts to Wright. But at least one said he had no problem with Wright using the money to reimburse himself for his work with the foundation.

Wright said he solicited the money to make payments on the loan, although he never told the lobbyists of his intention. But he said he put the checks in his personal account when it was obvious the loan was in default and the bank would foreclose on the building.

"The bank wanted $150,000 back. I sincerely didn't think $7,000, $8,000 would make a difference to them," he said. "I offered that. I offered to renegotiate, to pay interest and all of that. They didn't want it."

Wright said he had put almost $7,000 of his own money into starting the foundation. Although he has maintained he used the donations to pay for some of his "sweat equity," he acknowledged Thursday that he shouldn't have put the corporate checks directly into his account.

Defense attorney Douglas Harris has maintained that Wright is guilty of only sloppy bookkeeping, saying the eight-term lawmaker was more concerned about helping his community than in tending to financial details.

Joyce Wright, Wright's wife, backed up that characterization of her husband in testimony Thursday morning. She said she has often found checks lying around the house that have gone uncashed for years.