State News

Criminal Trial of Expelled Lawmaker Begins

Posted March 30, 2008 4:25 p.m. EDT
Updated March 31, 2008 12:58 p.m. EDT

— Jury selection got under way Monday in the criminal trial of former Rep. Thomas Wright for alleged campaign-finance and loan fraud.

Wright became the first state legislator thrown out of office by his colleagues for misconduct in 128 years and could now face up to 11 years of prison time if convicted of felony fraud charges.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Henry Hight denied a motion from Wright's attorney, Douglas Harris, to postpone the trial of the Wilmington Democrat. Wright's trial has already been delayed once.

Harris cited the the intense attention that surrounded Wright's recent removal from the House, but Hight noted the only attention the case was getting Monday came from the reporters gathered in the courtroom to watch.

Hight did agree with a defense motion to have Wright solely on four fraud charges.

However, he denied an attempt by Harris to have the charge of obstruction of justice – focusing on about 400 campaign contributions that prosecutors say were not reported – against Wright dismissed.

Hight ruled that the obstruction of justice charge was unrelated to the fraud charges. Wright could still stand trial for obstruction of justice later.

Wright was indicted in December on charges he obtained fraudulently $160,000 in bank loans and pocketed another $190,000 in contributions meant for his campaign or a health foundation he led in Wilmington.

A House committee investigating almost identical accusations based on the indictments found earlier this month there was clear and convincing evidence that he committed ethical misconduct. On March 20, the full House voted by a count of 109-5 to expel him.

The eight-term lawmaker is challenging the expulsion in court, arguing that legislators violated his constitutional rights in part by removing him based on a lower threshold of evidence than in a criminal proceeding.

Wright, 52, has denied the allegations against him but says he will finally get to explain why he believes he is innocent. He declined to offer evidence in the legislative proceedings for fear of revealing his strategy to Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby, according to his attorneys.

Willoughby, who is trying the case himself, has said he wants to complete the trial, which could last a week or longer, sooner rather than later so as not to interfere with the May 6 primary.

Despite his expulsion, Wright is still running for his old 18th District seat and faces two other Democrats in the primary. However, Wright would be disqualified from returning to the Legislature if he is convicted of a felony.

It should not be too hard to seat a jury that can judge Wright fairly despite the publicity surrounding his expulsion and details released about his alleged misconduct, Willoughby argued last week.

"I expect most folks haven't paid attention to what's going on," he said in an interview. "They probably didn't have the luxury of having the information or forming opinions about that."