Wilmington Democrat Thomas Wright is serving a 70- to 95-month prison term on charges of obtaining property by false pretense for mishandling charity contributions and obstruction of justice for failing to report $150,000 in campaign contributions and nearly $77,000 he transferred from campaign accounts to himself.
Wright’s attorney argued there wasn’t enough evidence showing Wright engaged in common law obstruction. The court last fall upheld Wright’s fraud convictions from an earlier trial.
Appellate judges ruled each misdemeanor offense combined into a pattern of deceit.
"I think the courts have reinforced the concept that this kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated," said Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, who prosecuted Wright.
When applied to other cases, he said, malice and intent must be proven.
Former federal prosecutor Dan Boyce said the ruling could be an indicator of what is to come in the state investigation of Gov. Mike Easley and his dealings with political contributors while in office.
In fact, Boyce said two recent rulings could affect the Easley case. The gutting of the so-called “honest services” law will make it harder for federal investigators to build a case. However, the appeals ruling could make it easier to prosecute on the state level.
"This is a precedent-setting case," Boyce said. "I think this has a tremendous impact on the potential for state charges."
The State Board of Elections has already fined the Easley campaign for unreported and unpaid flights. Questions also arose about influence and favors.
Boyce said the Wright decision opens the door for an Easley case, but only if there's proof someone plotted to hide the truth.
"Any intentional effort to somehow conceal or misrepresent facts could come under an obstruction of justice felony charge," Boyce said.
Rowan County District Attorney Bill Kenerly, who was out of town Tuesday and could not be reached, is handling the Easley case. He has yet to decide whether to file criminal charges.