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State opens obstruction case against Rep. Wright

RALEIGHProsecutors began laying out a case today that former state Rep. Thomas Wright concealed more than $100,000 in campaign contributions over seven years – sometimes on purpose – so that voters would not know who his supporters were.

In response, Wright's attorney argued he was only sloppy and that he violated no laws.

Wright, a Democrat from Wilmington, is on trial for alleged obstruction of justice. He was once among the most powerful lawmakers in the General Assembly and a top ally of former House Speaker Jim Black, a Mecklenburg County Democrat.

In March, fellow lawmakers expelled him for violating ethics rules – the first expulsion in North Carolina since the 19th century – and a jury convicted him of fraud a month later.

A conviction for obstruction of justice could add at least four months to a prison sentence that is already scheduled to go through May 2015.

Following the selection of a jury and brief opening statements Monday, two investigators testified about Wright's campaign finances.

Johnnie Umphlet, an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation, said he interviewed Wright twice in September and October last year. Among the questions Umphlet said he asked was whether Wright had ever commingled campaign money with personal money.

“His response was that that may be improper but not illegal,” Umphlet testified, “and that he had an answer for that but he would save it.”

Umphlet testified that Wright never gave an answer.

He also said he asked Wright about campaign contributions from the developers of a proposed landfill near Wright's legislative district. The landfill was an issue in Wright's 2006 re-election campaign, and Wright had delayed reporting contributions from the developers, according to a complaint filed with the State Board of Elections.

Wright acknowledged not reporting the contributions on time but said the delay didn't matter because he won the 2006 campaign by a wide margin, Umphlet testified.

“He advised that he beat the (expletive deleted) out of his opponents and it did not matter when he disclosed those campaign reports,” Umphlet said.

Kim Strach, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, testified that at times Wright did not have an active bank account for his campaign, despite a state law that required him to do so. She is scheduled to resume testifying Tuesday.

The jury in the case has 11 women and one man.