Local Politics

Wright Gets More Than 5 Years in Prison for Fraud

Posted April 7, 2008 5:51 a.m. EDT
Updated April 7, 2008 8:56 p.m. EDT

— Former state Rep. Thomas Wright was sentenced Monday to 70 to 95 months in prison after a jury convicted him of three counts of fraud.

Wright, a Democrat who represented New Hanover County, was charged with pocketing $8,900 in corporate donations to his Community Health Foundation and fraudulently obtaining a $150,000 loan to buy a building for a museum to commemorate Wilmington's 1898 race riots.

Jurors convicted Wright of loan fraud and of depositing donations from AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals and Anheuser-Busch into his personal account. They found him not guilty of taking a $1,500 donation that AT&T had given to the foundation, saying Wright never contacted company officials to solicit the donation.

Superior Court Judge Henry Hight sentenced the eight-term lawmaker to 58 to 79 months in prison for the loan fraud and six to eight months on each of the corporate contribution charges. The sentences will run consecutively.

Wright claimed last week that the charges against him were politically motivated because he wouldn't support the Democratic candidate for a state Senate seat in Wilmington. He shook his head as the verdicts were announced, but defense attorney Douglas Harris said he wasn't surprised by the jury's decision.

"The chances of getting a not guilty on all four (charges) was just about zero," Harris said.

Still, Harris said he plans to appeal the verdicts, saying he believes the jury was tainted by the publicity surrounding Wright's recent expulsion from the House.

House members voted overwhelmingly last month to oust Wright based on the same allegations.

"This will be reversed in every respect. It's injustice to the highest degree," Harris said.

Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby said the criminal charges against Wright needed to be resolved before the May 6 primary.

"This is just another unpleasant chapter in what we've been dealing with in the past two to three years," Willoughby said. "I think he forgot who he was supposed to be serving, and I think that's something all public officials need to think about – who are you supposed to serve? It's the people, not yourself."

Political watchdog Joe Sinsheimer, who filed the original complaint against Wright with the State Board of Elections and who also filed complaints that led to the downfall of former House Speaker Jim Black, said he was pleased the law finally caught up with Wright.

"Mr. Wright has no one to blame for these mistakes other than himself," Sinsheimer said. "Slowly but surely, we are getting rid of some of the rotten apples in the General Assembly, but more work remains."

House Speaker Joe Hackney issued a statement calling the end of Wright's political career regrettable.

"For many years, Thomas Wright was a champion for people who often couldn't help themselves, but that doesn't excuse him from having to follow the law," Hackney said.

Last week, New Hanover Democrats chose former Wilmington City Council member Sandra Spaulding Hughes to serve the remainder of Wright's term.

With the conviction, Wright joins a dubious list of North Carolina leaders who used their political power to obtain money, such as Black, former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps and ex-Congressman Frank Ballance.

"I think it's going to take a while before the trust is completely restored," said Jane Pinsky, director of the Coalition for Government and Lobbying Reform. "I think the General Assembly has learned a lesson. They have to be more open. They have to be more responsible. There has to be transparency."

Wright's former colleagues said they see prison time as a powerful message that lawmakers aren't above the law.

"If you forget that and you begin to think that you're bigger than the body and the process itself, these types of things occur," said Rep. Ty Harrell, D-Wake.

"When a public official lies, cheats and steals, it's not surprising he's no longer in the House and (is) facing sentencing," said Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake.

Willoughby said he hasn't decided whether to pursue a separate obstruction of justice case against Wright stemming from $180,000 in unreported campaign contributions.