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Submitted by Kevin Wuzzardo on Fri, 03/07/2008 - 10:29am.
"I'm highly disappointed with my colleagues," Rep. Thomas Wright said after a state house ethics panel Thursday found he committed a variety of midconduct for his handling of campaign and charitible funds. "This rush to judgment from day one is politically motivated, clearly. I am an elected official. I am their peer, and how dare my colleagues sit in judgment and pass judgment on me."
And so came the first words in months from Wright's mouth about the investigation that has led to those peers in the House of Representatives to recommend he be the first member of the state legislature in 128 years to be thrown out of office.
I, for sure, am in no position to sit in judgment of Wright, who represents parts of New Hanover and Pender Counties. But fellow legislators certainly were. That's how governing bodies uphold standards of ethics. And so is the jury that likely will be seated in a few weeks in Wright's criminal trial on charges of fraud and obstruction. But I think I can easily come to the conclusion that Wright, through what he has said and not said, feels like no one should judge him. (I do agree with Wright, though, that the House should have at least waited until after his criminal trial to hold its hearings in order to let him defend himself properly.)
Wright reportedly told investigators he took thousands of dollars ear-marked for a non-profit he helped establish as payment for the work that he did for it, even though there was nothing that said he was owed that money. When my colleague Douglas Clark asked Wright on the floor of the House a year ago what he had to say of various allegations made against him, Wright tromped on the First Amendment and the privilege of credentialed media in the House, telling Doug, "You shouldn't be here right now on this floor doing this. So if were you, I would probably go there," as he pointed to the door.
It seems obvious to me, at least, that Wright sees himself immune to cricitism, ethical allegations, criminal charges and the general rules of conduct. It seems obvious to me that he fails to see the irony in alleging a political witch-hunt, when it was a Democratic party strategist who first blew the whistle on Wright and another fellow Democrat, ethics committee chair Rick Glazier, who was perhaps Wright's most vocal antagonist during this week's hearing. And that other Democrats, including his local colleague in the state Senate Julia Boseman, Gov. Mike Easley and House Speaker Joe Hackney, have publicly called for Wright's resignation. And that the toughened stance on corruption comes in the wake of a scandal that cost former House Speaker Jim Black (another Democrat) his job and his freedom. Again, though, it is not my place to judge; but it may be yours.
The next step for the members of the House is to vote on how to punish Wright. A spokesperson for Gov. Easley said last night that if Speaker Hackney asks for a special legislative session, the Governor will call for it. That may happen, as the House is not scheduled to convene again until May 13. That's one week after voters could make the House's decision on Wright's punishment moot.
May 6 is the primary election in North Carolina. Wright faces two challengers on the Democratic ballot in community activist Hollis Briggs, Jr., and former Wilmington city council member Sandra Spaulding-Hughes. That means regardless of how the House acts, voters will have the ultimate say. Should the House kick Wright out, his constituents in the 18th District may decide the offenses his colleagues found are forgiveable, and vote him into November's general election, where he'll face Republican Thom Goolsby. Or if the House decides to let Wright stay in his seat or just hasn't had time to act yet, they could decide they've had enough and want a change in the form of Briggs or Spaulding-Hughes.
The bottom line is that Thomas Wright can think whatever he wants about his colleagues, prosecutors and the media. But he cannot look past the voters in his district. He may be innocent until proven guilty in criminal court, and he has a few more weeks until he has to make that case. But voters are the jury in the court of public opinion. And regardless of the ethics committee or that criminal jury, he has two months to make sure voters are clear about who he is and what happened right or wrong with the money. May 6 should tell us whether he really wins or loses.
By: Kevin Wuzzardo