LOCAL

There are far worse crimes than Wright's

PoliticsLaws and LegislationCourts and the JudiciaryCrime, Law and JusticeRoderick WrightU.S. CongressDarrell Steinberg

SACRAMENTO — Pardon me if I haven't gotten all worked up about Sen. Rod Wright being convicted of lying about where he lives.

A politician fudging his residency to make people think he lives in his district? Shock, shock!

Happens a lot. But district attorneys seldom prosecute. Most feel there are much worse crimes to chase.

Should these politicians get away with it? No, not in an ideal world.

But district lines shift. They're redrawn every 10 years to fit population changes.

Should it even be the law that a candidate live in a legislative district before he runs to represent it in Sacramento? That's worthy of debate.

Members of Congress don't need to reside in their districts. The U.S. Constitution only requires them to live in the state.

But yes, in theory, it's better that a legislator live among the people he represents — go to the same dry cleaner, the same church, the same bar. Get a feel for local needs.

Nice concept. But it breaks down out in the sticks. Districts can sprawl for dozens, even hundreds of miles.

One state senator, for example, represents 11 counties, stretching from the Oregon border to south of Lake Tahoe and dipping down into the Sacramento suburbs. Another district climbs from Bakersfield over the top of the Sierra into Bishop. Bakersfield and Bishop have about as much in common as Burbank and Barstow.

Wright, 61, a career pol who should have known better, was found guilty of falsely claiming a rented room in a modest Inglewood home that he owns as his official "domicile" — in essence, his main personal hangout.

In reality, when not in Sacramento, the Democrat lives outside his district in a nice house in upscale Baldwin Hills. There with his collectibles, artwork and three luxury cars.

Wright told me the law "is about as clear as mud."

"It doesn't say anything about the nicest house," he said. "It doesn't talk about where you park your Maserati."

The law says a person must be able to vote in a legislative district before he can become a candidate there. And he can only register to vote where his domicile is. A domicile, the law explains, sort of, is where his "habitation is fixed" — the place where he intends to remain and return. And only one domicile is allowed per person.

Mud maybe.

But the law's clear enough that any politician should get the idea: Its purpose is to require legislative candidates to live in the district. And although many believe they can play semantic games and avoid the law, it's a risk — as Wright's jury showed — that is not worth taking.

He was convicted of eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. The jury found that the lawmaker was a lawbreaker.

Yes, laws should be obeyed. And violators should be punished.

If the verdict isn't overturned by the judge or on appeal, the guilty one should pay — if for no other reason than to deter other politicians from similar recklessness.

Give him the death penalty — the death penalty, that is, for a politician: Yank away his office. And ban him from reseeking it for 10 years.

Fine Wright what remains in his political kitties, mostly fed by special interests. I count up around $185,000 as of Jan. 1, including $76,000 in legal defense funds and about $92,000 for a 2018 run for the state Board of Equalization. Forget that campaign.

But don't send him to the big house. No prison time. No jail lockup, either. He theoretically could be sentenced to eight years behind bars.

When California is under a federal court order to reduce prison crowding, and hard-core criminals must be released early, it makes no sense to fill a cell with a harmless politician whose only crime was misleading people about where he lived.

Wright's offense is so low-level it shouldn't even be a felony. A misdemeanor would be plenty harsh. And don't waste money on supervised probation. Scarce probation officers should focus on thieves, druggies and mental misfits.

No ankle bracelets. No home confinement.

Meanwhile, Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is correct for allowing Wright to remain in office until the case is settled. The Senate could boot him on a two-thirds vote.

Expelling him before his appeals are exhausted, Wright says, "would be like executing someone and then they say, 'Oh, we've got this DNA and he didn't do it.' But they've already chopped his head off."

There is some demagogic clamor from a few opportunistic Republicans — not Minority Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, however — to oust the Democrat. Never mind that a couple of Republicans have questionable domiciles themselves.

There's also some static about how the Senate is treating Wright compared to Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello). Wright surrendered a coveted committee chairmanship but remains a member of some panels. Calderon was stripped off all committee assignments.

Calderon hasn't been charged but is under FBI investigation for allegedly accepting bribes to influence legislation. "Those allegations are so serious and egregious I felt it necessary to take action to protect the house," Steinberg says.

Wright's case, he continues, stems from an ambiguous law and "does not involve how a member does his job."

The whole episode isn't worth losing sleep over — unless you're Wright.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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PoliticsLaws and LegislationCourts and the JudiciaryCrime, Law and JusticeRoderick WrightU.S. CongressDarrell Steinberg
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