State News

Wright Pleads Not Guilty to Wrongly Getting, Using $350,000

Posted January 4, 2008 10:37 a.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2008 6:57 p.m. EST

— Rep. Thomas Wright pleaded not guilty Friday to six felony charges that accuse him of illegally obtaining or misusing more than $350,000 in campaign donations, loans and charitable money.

Wright's attorney, Douglas Harris, blamed many of his client's troubles on sloppy bookkeeping, not illegal activity.

"Some of its sloppy accounting," he said. "Some of its simply campaign contributions straight up. I personally don't see anything illegal there."

Harris, who entered the plea on Wright's behalf in a Wake County courtroom, said he believed his client was innocent based on a review of about 6,800 pages of discovery documents that prosecutors have already provided.

"I spent all New Year's Day eating greens and black-eyed peas and looking through two boxes of evidence," Harris said after the hearing. "I think a jury, when they've seen what I've seen, will conclude he's innocent as well."

Wright, an eight-term Democrat from Wilmington, appeared in court with Harris but didn't speak to Superior Court Judge Donald Stephens or to reporters afterward. Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby declined to comment on the evidence.

Through Harris, Wright defended himself publicly for the first time since his indictment nearly four weeks ago on five counts of fraud and one count of obstruction of justice. Wright could face up to 11 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

Prosecutors accuse Wright of fraudulently obtaining $160,000 in bank loans for a foundation he led in Wilmington and for converting $185,000 in campaign contributions to his personal use.

The indictment also alleges he kept $8,900 in donations from three companies that believed the money would be used for his foundation's charitable work.

Harris said many problems stemmed from simple bookkeeping mistakes, as Wright contended last May after the State Board of Elections referred his case to prosecutors following an investigation. Elections officials have said Wright mixed his personal and campaign finances in several accounts.

"I think a lot of ordinary people faced with keeping books ... don't do things as they should, and I think CPAs would swear to that," Harris said.

Some checks written to his foundation that Wright deposited in his personal account were to reimburse him for expenses for work he did without taking a salary, Harris said.

Attorneys are expected back in court next month to consider motions. Harris said he expects a trial date sometime this summer.

Wright's activities are also being examined by two legislative committees. A joint House-Senate committee is investigating whether Wright abused his office to obtain a loan, and a House-only panel is examining the actual criminal charges.

The House committee will meet next week to review evidence from state attorneys.

Either committee could recommend to the full House that Wright be censured or removed from office. The Legislature hasn't expelled a member since 1880. Several state officials have called on him to resign, including fellow Democratic Gov. Mike Easley and House Speaker Joe Hackney.

Wright has refused to resign amid the allegations, saying voters would decide if he should remain in office. They could get that chance in November, as Harris said Wright plans to run for re-election.

Wright is one of five current and former state lawmakers who have been indicted or pleaded guilty to criminal charges since 2004. Wright was once a top lieutenant to then-House Speaker Jim Black, who is serving time in federal prison for taking illegal cash payments from chiropractors.