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State Sen. Roderick Wright found guilty of perjury, voter fraud

Trials and ArbitrationElectionsLaws and LegislationPoliticsLos Angeles City CouncilLeland YeeRon Calderon

A Los Angeles jury Tuesday found state Sen. Roderick D. Wright, a fixture in area Democratic politics, guilty on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud.

Prosecutors said Wright, the first member of the Legislature to be convicted of a felony since the Shrimpscam sting of the 1990s, could face more than eight years behind bars and be banned for life from holding other elective office. It is unclear whether he must forfeit his Senate seat.

The lawmaker, who sat with his head bowed as a criminal courts clerk read the verdicts, had no comment. But his attorney said they would appeal. Judge Kathleen Kennedy set sentencing for March 12.


FOR THE RECORD:
Voter fraud case: An article in the Jan. 29 LATExtra section about the conviction of state Sen. Roderick D. Wright on perjury and voter fraud charges included a reference to Wright's "common-law stepmother." The state of California does not recognize common-law marriages. A reference to "common-law stepmother" was also included in an article about Wright's case in the Jan. 27 LATExtra section. —


Wright, who was indicted by a county grand jury in September 2010, remains free on $45,000 bail.

Under the state Constitution, a lawmaker can be expelled from the Legislature on a two-thirds vote of his or her house. In some cases, legislators have resigned voluntarily.

The last one to quit under such a cloud was then-state Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier), who departed in 1994 after being found guilty of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy in a corruption sting known as Shrimpscam, according to Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt.

In 2006, U.S. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe), resigned his office after pleading guilty to taking bribes and evading taxes. He was given an eight-year, four-month prison term.

California law requires that candidates for the state Legislature live in the district they seek to represent when they take out papers to run.

Wright's racially diverse jury of nine women and three men deliberated less than two full days before finding that he had lied about his address on voter registration and candidacy documents in 2007 and 2008, as he prepared to seek the Senate seat he holds.

He also voted fraudulently in five elections in 2008 and 2009, the jurors found.

Wright, 61, said he thought he was following the law when he arranged to rent a room in a home he owns that is occupied by his common-law stepmother to establish a legal residence in Inglewood. The city is in the district he wanted to represent.

Deputy Dist. Attys. Bjorn Dodd and Michele Gilmer, of the Public Integrity Division, said his true residence was a house in the upscale Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, outside the district.

They presented evidence showing full closets, three luxury cars, prescription medicines, collectibles and artwork at the Baldwin Hills house but few of Wright's personal effects at the Inglewood complex he bought in 1977.

State Senate leader and fellow Democrat Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento called the guilty verdicts "a punch to the gut."

"We hold Sen. Wright in high regard," Steinberg told reporters. He said he would consult with other senators and legal counsel before deciding what to do.

The verdict comes as another state senator, Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), is under federal investigation for alleged corruption. As news of Wright's conviction reached Sacramento on Tuesday, grim-faced lawmakers huddled around computers to learn the details. The Democratic caucus then met in closed session.

"Any time a colleague gets in these kinds of situations, it's always a painful experience," said Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco). "My thoughts are with him and his family."

The district attorney obtained search warrants for the Baldwin Hills and Inglewood properties in 2009. The prosecutors' evidence included photos taken at both addresses on the day of the search.

Wright said in his testimony that he moved some things to the Inglewood property and eventually changed his driver's license, passport and other documents to reflect that address.

During the trial, which began Jan. 8, Wright testified he had no intention to deceive or defraud. He cited a 1981 Tuolumne County case in which a court found that a woman appointed to an uncontested post to a local board could be seated, even though she and her husband had moved outside the district.

The couple had not changed their voter registrations, driver's licenses or other key documents to reflect a new address.

Prosecutors said Wright did not register at the Inglewood property until he prepared to run for the Senate in 2007. Wright testified that he had lived periodically at the Inglewood complex.

At the heart of the case was whether the Inglewood property was Wright's "domicile" — a home, where one intends to stay and to return after an absence.

Wright testified he thought he had made the Inglewood property, in what was then the 25th Senate District (since redrawn), his domicile. Dodd called it "a Hollywood prop" meant to "create the appearance that he was living in the district."

Winston Kevin McKesson, Wright's attorney, faulted the law as murky and the D.A.'s investigation as sloppy. He called those who searched the homes liars. He portrayed Wright as a "dedicated public servant" who had spent his adult life in politics.

McKesson heatedly referred to the investigation and subsequent trial as a waste of taxpayer money and noted Wright's commendations from constituents and interest groups.

Wright got his start in politics on Sen. George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign while a student at Pepperdine University. After graduation, he continued to work on Democratic campaigns between stints as an aide to two then-Los Angeles City Council members, Robert Farrell and David Cunningham, and to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).

He was elected to the state Assembly in 1996, serving until term limits forced him out in 2002. Wright twice ran unsuccessfully for the L.A. City Council, in 1991 and 2003.

After winning the 2008 state Senate race in the strongly Democratic district, Wright was reelected in 2012 in a redrawn district, the 35th, with nearly 77% of the vote.

jean.merl@latimes.com


Times reporters Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento and Paresh Dave in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Trials and ArbitrationElectionsLaws and LegislationPoliticsLos Angeles City CouncilLeland YeeRon Calderon
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