Local News

Lobbyists: Donations Not Gifts to Wright

Posted April 2, 2008 6:16 a.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2008 6:19 p.m. EDT

— Prosecutors spent Wednesday trying to prove that former state Rep. Thomas Wright pocketed corporate donations intended for a nonprofit foundation he runs.

Wright, who was expelled from the House last month, is charged with four counts of fraud in connection with the $8,900 in donations and a $150,000 loan that prosecutors said he obtained illegally.

The prosecution was expected to wrap up its case Thursday morning, and Wright was expected to testify in his defense.

Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals wrote checks in late 2003 and early 2004 to the Community Health Foundation, an organization Wright created. The checks were deposited in Wright's personal bank account.

Three lobbyists testified that money given by their companies to Wright were donations to the foundation, not a personal gift.

"Did you intend for Rep. Wright to use the money personally?" Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby asked.

"No," replied John Pollicastro, who formerly worked for AT&T.

"Did you intend for him to put this in his personal bank account?" Willoughby asked.

"No," Pollicastro said.

Under cross-examination, one of the lobbyists said he had no objection to Wright reimbursing himself for expenses incurred while running the foundation.

"If it was a legitimate expense, I have no problem with it whatsoever," said Brian Shank, who was a lobbyist at AstraZeneca when the company gave to Wright's foundation.

Wright has said previously he took the money to pay for his "sweat equity" in getting the foundation off the ground.

Defense attorney Douglas Harris said Wednesday that Wright deposited the checks into his personal account because the foundation's account had already closed, but Willoughby countered that the checks had been written long before the foundation account closed.

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.

Lewis McKinney, a government relations executive for Anheuser-Busch whose responsibilities once included North Carolina, said Wednesday that Wright asked the St. Louis brewer for a donation to help with the building.

"We give a contribution to an organization, and what the organization decides to do with the building (is) completely up to the organization," he said.

McKinney said he didn't know the bank had already begun foreclosure proceedings when he gave the money. But he said that wouldn't have stopped him from making the donation since he was familiar with Wright's work on health care issues in southeastern North Carolina.

"I don't think I would have hesitated to move the request forward because (Wright) asked me," he said.

Jurors also heard testimony Wednesday from a credit union official who said that Wright had defaulted on a $10,000 loan he sought for the foundation in 2001.

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.

Wright, a Wilmington Democrat, has denied the allegations of wrongdoing and has asked a court to reverse his expulsion from the House. He could be sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison if convicted on all four counts of felony fraud.