Wright guilty of campaign violations

Former state Rep. Thomas Wright has become the latest public figure in North Carolina convicted of violating campaign finance laws.

A Wake County jury unanimously found the Wilmington Democrat guilty Wednesday of obstruction of justice related to a number of campaign irregularities. Investigators say he failed to report $150,000 in campaign contributions over six years, pocketing most of the money for himself.

The case is the most recent example of public corruption in the state capital.

Wake District Attorney Colon Willoughby said it highlights the need for change. “Our campaign finance laws cry out for some overhaul,” he said.

Most violations of campaign finance law are misdemeanors under state law. Willoughby called for more tools for prosecutors, such as the ability to convene an investigative grand jury, and he said the penalties should be more severe.

“We've seen some pretty egregious examples that don't fit a misdemeanor,” he said.

State lawmakers have considered such proposals for years. They have never passed.

Rep. Melanie Wade Goodwin, chairwoman of the House committee on campaign finance law, said Wednesday that lawmakers need to balance penalties with other concerns.

“We want to make sure that we don't make it so hostile to potential candidates that we can't get people to run for office,” said Goodwin, a Richmond County Democrat.

“And we also want to make sure we don't create felony penalties for everything,” she added, “so that we've got so many in prison for campaign finance violations that we don't have room for people who commit violent crimes.”

Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic campaign consultant who complained about Wright to the State Board of Elections in 2006, said Wright was brought down by “arrogance, hubris and greed.”

“The indictments and convictions will continue until either the leadership of the General Assembly decides to change the culture of the institution or voters adopt a ‘throw-the-bums-out' mentality,” Sinsheimer wrote in an e-mail.

“Neither seems imminent, although both would be welcome.”

Several state public officials have been convicted of campaign finance crimes in recent years. Former House Speaker Jim Black, a Matthews Democrat, pleaded guilty to taking cash from chiropractors in secret bathroom meetings. Former Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps pleaded guilty to pressuring state fair operators into giving campaign contributions.

Wright, 53, was once among the most powerful members of the House, ranking eighth in one survey of effectiveness following the 2001 legislative session.

In March, he became the first N.C. lawmaker expelled from office since the 19th century, following his indictment for fraud and obstruction of justice. He was convicted of fraud in April – in connection with a $150,000 bank loan and $7,400 meant for charity – and sentenced to as many as eight years in prison.

Wright's conviction Wednesday will not add any more time to his sentence. Judge Donald Stephens sentenced Wright to six to eight months, to be served at the same time as the earlier sentence.

“I don't think it's in the state's interests to extend the time of his incarceration,” Willoughby told the judge.

Still, Willoughby defended his decision to bring the case to trial. He said the state began investigating Wright because of campaign finances, not because of other fraud.

Wright's attorney Doug Harris of Greensboro said his client would appeal the conviction, as he is doing with the convictions from April. He said Stephens took away any chance the jury would acquit Wright.

“It was impossible to win based on the instructions the jury was given,” Harris said.

Stephens and Harris disagreed Wednesday on how to answer a question from the jury, which had asked for a definition of “intent to defraud.” Stephens provided an entry from Black's Law Dictionary and, over Harris' objection, explained to jurors how it might fit Wright's case.

About 20 minutes later, jurors returned with their verdict. They deliberated for about 21/2 hours Tuesday and Wednesday.