RALEIGH (AP) - A special House ethics committee on Thursday unanimously recommended Rep. Thomas Wright be kicked out of office for committing financial fraud on a "breathtakingly massive" scale.
If the full House concurs, the eight-term Wilmington Democrat will be the first lawmaker expelled from the General Assembly in 128 years.
The committee ruled earlier in the day that Wright committed a variety of misconduct in his handling roughly $340,000 in loans and campaign and charitable contributions. The panel said clear and convincing evidence showed Wright failed to report $180,000 in campaign contributions, deposited $8,900 of charitable donations into his personal bank account, and persuaded a state official to write a bogus letter so he could take out a $150,000 loan.
Lawmakers were outraged at their finding that Wright failed to report 400 campaign contributions between 2000 and 2006.
"The best remedy for allegations of corruption is just a lot of sunshine, (but) what we have here is just a complete shutdown of the blinds so no one can see what Rep. Wright was receiving and what he was spending," said panel member Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake. "I held out the possibility that maybe there was an explanation ... but even that has not occurred."
After hearing the verdict, Wright didn't bother to stick around to learn of his possible punishment.
"I'm highly disappointed with my colleagues. This rush to judgment from day one is politically motivated, clearly," Wright said. "I am an elected official. I am their peer, and how dare my colleagues sit in judgment and pass judgment on me."
But the committee members, divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, agreed during a solemn and brief debate that removing Wright from office was the only appropriate punishment.
"Rep. Wright holds public office because of his lies," said committee chairman Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland. "Rep. Wright's conduct makes this decision, for me, not even a close one."
Wright has consistently denied the allegations, but he declined to present any evidence during the four-day hearing. His attorneys said they didn't want to disclose their strategy before his March 31 criminal trial on allegations similar to those considered by the committee.
Bill Holmes, a spokesman for House Speaker Joe Hackney, said he did not know if legislators would return to Raleigh in a special session to consider the committee's recommendation. House leaders have previously said they want to resolve Wright's future as soon as possible, and a spokesman for Gov. Mike Easley said Thursday night he would call a special session at Hackney's request.
Holmes said Wright also could be booted if convicted of a felony at trial.
During closing arguments, Special Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters said testimony showed that Wright intentionally avoided reporting campaign donations. In four campaign finance reports, Wright incorrectly reported that he had received no contributions when he had been given tens of thousands of dollars, Peters said.
"The fraud in this count on the public is breathtakingly massive," Glazier said. "I cannot conceive of another circumstance like that in this General Assembly."
One of Wright's attorneys, Irving Joyner, said his client should be allowed to amend his campaign reports, something he said hundreds of campaign committees did last year to fix mistakes.
"Instead of prosecuting Thomas Wright, we should be encouraging him to amend his report," Joyner said during his closing argument.
Wright has said he deposited the $8,900 in contributions into his personal bank account as "sweat equity" to reimburse himself for work he did for a charitable foundation he created in Wilmington. But the committee found that he had no authority to do so and that three companies who gave the money expected it to go for charitable endeavors.
The committee also said it was particularly displeased that Wright persuaded the director of the state Office of Rural Health to write a fake letter in 2002 that helped the Community's Health Foundation, which Wright created, take out a $150,000 loan. Wright wanted to use loan proceeds to purchase a downtown Wilmington building and turn it into a museum commemorating the city's 1898 race riots.
"Placing any state employee in that situation is just untenable," Glazier said. "To allow a legislator to do that, it utterly chills good government and effective government and fair government."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)