Jury finds Sen. Rod Wright guilty on eight felony counts

lrosenhall@sacbee.comJanuary 28, 2014 

The state legislator who often says his constituents’ main concern is landing a “j-o-b” may be in need of a new one himself.

A Los Angeles jury on Tuesday convicted state Sen. Rod Wright on eight felony counts in a case that challenged whether he lived in the district he represented, potentially sending the Democratic lawmaker to prison for up to eight years. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March 12.

Prosecutors alleged Wright did not live in the Inglewood home he listed as his address when he ran for office in 2008, and instead lived in Baldwin Hills, a swankier community outside the boundaries of his working-class district. They charged him with eight felony counts – two counts of perjury, one count of filing a false declaration of candidacy and five counts of fraudulent voting.

Whether Wright can maintain his seat in the Senate is unclear. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office says his conviction means he must leave office and is barred from ever again holding an elective office in California. Officials in the state Senate, however, say Wright may continue to serve until he steps down or is expelled by a two-thirds vote of his fellow senators.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said he would consult with lawyers and colleagues before deciding whether the upper house will take any action against Wright.

“It’s a punch to the gut,” Steinberg said. “We hold Sen. Wright in high regard.”

It was a rare conviction in an area of the law that has dogged many state legislators. California law requires legislative candidates to live in the district they seek to represent, but it’s not uncommon for politicians to have multiple homes. They typically bounce between the capital city and their home districts, and some hop around as district lines are redrawn or political ambitions change.

Last year, The Sacramento Bee reported that Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan does not appear to live in the Pocket-area condo he claimed was his legal home during the 2012 election, but instead spends most nights with his wife and children in Natomas, outside the boundaries of the 9th Assembly District he represents.

In December, Republican Sen. Ted Gaines announced he was moving out of Rocklin, where he had rented a home inside his 1st Senate District, and back to his family’s longtime home in Roseville – outside the district.

In 2012, Republican Sen. Mimi Walters faced a lawsuit from an opponent in her race for an Orange County Senate seat, who alleged she didn’t really live in the Irvine apartment she claimed as her address.

Pan has not been charged with a crime, Gaines got permission from Senate officials before he moved, and the lawsuit against Walters was thrown out by a judge.

“It really is murky as to what exactly is required to establish a legal domicile in one place vs. another when you have multiple residences,” said Fredric D. Woocher, an election law expert in Los Angeles who consulted with Wright during his trial.

Jessica Levinson, an election law expert at Loyola Law School, said the difference in how cases are treated can reflect varying priorities among county prosecutors.

“These are very visible cases,” Levinson said. “When you bring a case against a legislator you want to be really sure you’re going to win, because it’s going to be in the paper.”

Wright’s defense attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said the senator has not yet decided if he will appeal his conviction, nor has he decided if he will resign from the state Senate.

“We’re going to talk about it and see what we’re going to do,” McKesson said.

The last time the Senate voted to expel a sitting senator was in 1905, said Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate. Four lawmakers convicted during the federal corruption sting in the 1990s resigned before legislators voted to expel them, Schmidt said, adding that he knew of no case in which a sitting legislator has been convicted of perjury and voter fraud crimes.

Wright pleaded not guilty, and argued he met all the legal criteria for running in what was then the 25th Senate District, including moving possessions into the Inglewood home he had owned since 1977 – where the woman he considers his stepmother lives – and registering to vote at the address.

A major focus of the trial in Los Angeles Superior Court was the legal distinction between a “domicile” – a long-term home – and a “residence,” or temporary dwelling. Wright said he bought the Baldwin Hills home in 2000 to use as an office for his real estate investment business and never considered it his legal domicile.

Neighbors testified that they routinely saw Wright at the Baldwin Hills house, while Wright’s tenant at the Inglewood home testified she had never seen him spend the night or fix a meal in Inglewood, according to the Los Angeles Times. Yet Wright testified that he never claimed a homeowners tax exemption, registered to vote or applied for a driver’s license using the Baldwin Hills address.

Wright chairs the Senate’s Governmental Organization committee, the panel that oversees gambling and alcohol regulations, and has led the effort for the last three years to pass a bill that would allow Internet gambling in California. He is a moderate Democrat who frequently votes with Republicans on gun measures and is known for slinging zingers during his testimony in the Capitol.

“I will stop what I’m doing to watch him speak on the floor of the Senate,” said David Quintana, a lobbyist who represents several American Indian tribes and has worked closely with Wright on Internet gambling proposals. “He’s the only legislator that gets me to turn my television off of mute when I’m in the office, because he can move you.”

Sen. Ron Calderon, the Montebello Democrat who is the focus of an FBI corruption probe, said his heart goes out to Wright. But he emphasized that their situations are different because Calderon has not been charged with a crime.

“Anyone who has known Rod is going to feel empathy because he’s just a genuine man,” Calderon said.

The Los Angeles County Republican Party issued a statement calling on Wright to resign.

“The Capitol’s culture of corruption has claimed yet another Democrat,” said the statement from county chairman Mark Vafiades. “It proves beyond any doubt there is something seriously wrong with the absolute power that Democrats have amassed in Sacramento.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083.

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