Local Politics

No Verdict in Ex-Lawmaker's Fraud Case

Posted April 4, 2008 7:46 a.m. EDT
Updated April 4, 2008 10:41 p.m. EDT

— Prosecutors brought fraud charges against former Rep. Thomas Wright without any legitimate evidence to prove their case, his attorney said Friday, comparing his client's case to the biblical fight between David and Goliath.

"Sometimes, David wins," attorney Douglas Harris said during his closing arguments at Wright's criminal trial.

The Wilmington Democrat is charged with pocketing $8,900 in donations to his Community Health Foundation and fraudulently obtaining a $150,000 loan to buy a building for a museum to commemorate Wilmington's 1898 race riots.

He could be sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison if convicted on four felony counts of fraud. The jury began deliberating the case Friday at noon. It will continue deliberating Monday.

Harris said the charges are politically motivated, brought in December 2006 after an election in which Wright supported a Republican for state senate.

"They don't care if these charges don't make any sense. They don't care if they look like idiots. They don't care they're asking you to do a fool's errand," Harris said. "They don't care as long as they get Tom Wright, as long as some jury is stupid enough to go along with this"

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the case wasn't political, but was about seeking justice and Wright's deliberately breaking the law.

"It should probably make you angry that Thomas Wright, a legislator – elected – comes to Raleigh and sits in his office and has his administrative assistant prepare letters to send to corporations to get contributions to put in his pocket," Willoughby said.

Harris told jurors that Wright did not fraudulently obtain the loan, saying it was approved 10 days before a state health official wrote a letter saying the foundation would get a state grant.

That letter detailed a nonexistent grant, and prosecutors argue Wright used it to convince his bank that the foundation would soon have the money needed to pay back the loan.

Wright acknowledged during his testimony Thursday that the grant described in the letter was bogus, but said the letter was drafted to convince the General Assembly there was an unfulfilled need for the race riot museum.

The money never surfaced, in part, because the Legislature could not find funds to do so during tight budget times, he testified.

Willoughby explained the date discrepancy by speculating that Wright first applied for the loan and then returned with the fake letter when the bank asked for proof there was indeed a grant forthcoming to pay off the debt.

Harris also said none of the three companies that gave Wright's foundation the donations complained about how the money was spent. Wright said he took the money as a reimbursement for thousands of dollars he spent to help start the foundation and create the museum, which was never built.

Willoughby said Wright had no evidence to support that claim and others, such as an assertion that the mistakes in his financial record-keeping were oversights.

"It was a paper foundation because it was nothing more than Thomas Wright himself," the prosecutor said.

Wright acknowledged during his testimony that he had no documents showing that he had actually spent any of his own money, but Harris blamed prosecutors Friday for that lack of proof.

Wright is still waiting for documents from his bank, he said, and would have been able to provide them to the court had Willoughby not rushed the case to trial.

Willoughby rejected the assertion during his closing, telling jurors, "They produced all the records we've ever needed."

Wright has been kicked out of office over the charges. A special House ethics committee recommended last month he be removed for ethical misconduct, and the full House agreed. The vote to expel the eight-term lawmaker marked the first removal of a member of the General Assembly in 128 years.

On Thursday, former Wilmington City Council member Sandra Spaulding Hughes was picked to serve the remainder of Wright's term.