Called to a special session last Thursday, the General Assembly of North Carolina took little more than an hour to expel
eight-term Democratic Rep. Thomas Wright from the state legislature. With all but five members in attendance, a stunning majority of the House agreed 109-5 that the allegations of ethical misconductâ hiding or mishandling $340,000 in loans and campaign fundsâ warranted the first removal of a member since 1880. Despite speculation that the Legislative Black Caucus, which includes 20 Democrats, would back their former chairman, the vote to expel handily exceeded the required two-thirds majority of 80. As soon as the vote was concluded, the House sergeants-at-arms wasted no time in escorting Wright out the door.
The chairman of the ethics committee, Rep. Rick Glazier (D), told
the assembled lawmakers that in the past eight years Wright had filed 22 erroneous campaign finance reports that he never bothered to correct.
âForty percent of the dollars Representative Wright received for seven years was not reported," Glazier said. "In the end, there is nary a substantive [campaign reporting law] in the statutes that was not violated repeatedly by Representative Wright.âAccording to the AP
, the bipartisan ethics committee found that âWright failed to properly disclose $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 about a state grant that, according to testimony, Wright used to take out a bank loan for a foundation he led.â
Wright could be re-elected and reclaim his seat so long as heâs not convicted of a felony in his criminal trial, which begins on March 31. Wright decided not to counter the charges made against him by the House ethics committee in order not to compromise his defense in court, where he plans to contest not only the charges of fraud and obstruction of justice, but also his expulsion.
âI am innocent of the criminal charges before me,â Wright told the legislators. âHowever, I need an opportunity to prove that. This is less than the appropriate setting for me to do that.â
Wrightâs few defenders included Rep. Earl Jones (D), who advocated censure rather than expulsion. Jones argued that the House would appear in an unfavorable light for removing him from office were Wright to be later acquitted of criminal charges in court. But he failed to convince his colleagues. The resolution to censure failed, 12-102.
North Carolina legislators are no strangers to back-room intrigue and financial shenanigans: Wright joins the select cadre of his colleagues (about a dozen) that have been expelled from the legislative body. Former Democratic Speaker Jim Black would have met the same fate last summer had he not resigned rather than face removal from office. Heâs now serving a five-year prison term in a federal penitentiary for bribery and corruption. The former representative who accepted some of his bribes, Republican Michael Decker, is serving a four-year prison term.