State News

Witnesses Detail $150,000 Loan to Wright

Posted April 1, 2008 12:19 p.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2008 9:56 p.m. EDT

— The crimes of which former Rep. Thomas Wright is accused were aired publicly for the third time Tuesday as detailed testimony began at his trial on criminal fraud charges.

Among the witnesses were a former state health official and a bank loan officer, both of whom testified last month at a hearing before a special House ethics panel that recommended kicking Wright out of office. That panel considered the same evidence that led the state Board of Elections last year to refer Wright's case to prosecutors.

Wright is accused of fraudulently obtaining a $150,000 loan and pocketing another $8,900 in corporate contributions meant for a health foundation he led in Wilmington. The Wilmington Democrat could be sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison if convicted on all four counts of felony fraud.

Last month, the full House voted 109-5 to accept the ethics panel's recommendation and boot Wright from office.

The former state official, Torlen Wade, testified again that, while chief of the state Office of Rural Health in 2002, he wrote a bogus letter on Wright's behalf that prosecutors argue the eight-term lawmaker used to take out a loan.

Wade testified that he was pressured by Wright, whom he had known for some time, to write that the state was providing a $150,000 grant to help Wright buy a building through his Community's Health Foundation. The building was to house a museum commemorating the 1898 Wilmington race riots. No such grant existed, Wade said.

Wade said he only wrote the letter because Wright was a member of the General Assembly and addressed the letter using Wright's legislative title.

"He was very insistent about it, that he needed my help," Wade said.

Ronnie Burbank, a commercial loan officer with Coastal Federal Bank, testified Tuesday that he had approved the loan for Wright to purchase a building for a museum before he ever saw Wade's letter. But he said Wright had told him the loan would be repaid with a state grant.

"I do recall seeing that letter at some point during the transaction, but I did not require it for approval," Burbank said.

Defense attorney Douglas Harris seized on the the fact that Wade wrote the letter 10 days after the loan had been approved.

"So, you did not rely on this letter from Torlen Wade?" Harris asked Burbank.

"Not for the approval," Burbank replied.

"And it was not a condition (of the loan) either, was it?"

"No, it was not."

The grant money never materialized, and the loan went into default. The bank foreclosed and wound up with a $25,000 profit when it sold the property.

During cross-examination, Harris pointed to the loan closing statement, which noted that Wright didn't receive anything personally from the loan.

Wright has denied the allegations of wrongdoing and has asked a court to reverse his expulsion from the House.