By the time Assemblywoman Cathie Wright’s daughter was ordered off the roads last week, she had had 27 traffic tickets--including 24 for speeding--and at least six accidents, and was the subject of 10 hearings by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, public records show.
Even the DMV official who reinstated Victoria Catherine Wright’s license to drive to and from work in July, after it had been suspended the previous month, wrote:
“This young lady’s record is horrendous. Contacts in the past have had apparently little or no effect on her driving practices.”
This extraordinary driving record has become the subject of public scrutiny because Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury’s office is investigating allegations that Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) improperly sought to use her political clout to help her daughter, 24, retain her license despite the mounting violations.
The investigation is focusing on the lawmaker’s intervention with Ventura County Municipal Court judges and the DMV and what investigators consider the unusual handling and outcome of some of the cases, sources say. Investigators are also reportedly looking into Wright’s attempts to influence the Simi Valley police, who issued most of Victoria Wright’s tickets.
An extensive analysis by The Times of Victoria Wright’s court and DMV records dating to 1981 turned up more convictions than had previously been reported in news accounts. It also found the following:
Ventura County Municipal Court Judge Bruce A. Clark dismissed two speeding tickets in May, 1988, in return for Victoria Wright’s attendance at a traffic school--even though she had been convicted of 12 moving violations in the previous three years.
Under state law, violators can use the traffic school option as often as the judges choose, but it is “the general rule of thumb” that most judges allow an offender to do so only once every 12 months, DMV spokeswoman Gina McGuiness said.
Clark’s decision followed a visit by Cathie Wright to his Ventura home, a sequence of events that Bradbury’s investigators are reviewing, sources said. Citing the ongoing inquiry, Clark declined Friday to discuss his reported meeting with fellow Republican Wright or the reason for his actions.
The two violations dismissed by Clark occurred a month after Judge Herbert Curtis III had placed Victoria Wright on probation for three years and given her a 30-day suspended sentence for driving without a license. He also fined her for two speeding convictions. Curtis told her that she would go to jail for her next conviction and indicated in the record that she should be brought back to his court for any future violations.
That did not happen. For some reason, which authorities could not explain last week, Curtis’ instructions and the fact that Wright was on probation were not included in the record that went to Clark. The omission occurred, authorities said, even though the two speeding convictions that Curtis had handled at the same time were in the record.
Curtis said he learned of the subsequent convictions from a reporter this month and has scheduled Wright’s arraignment for Tuesday on charges that she violated probation.
Investigators are also looking into a phone call that Curtis, a Democrat, has reportedly told them he received from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) at Cathie Wright’s behest. The judge said that Brown told him that Victoria Wright “was a good person trying to get her life in order and deserved a break in the case,” said sources familiar with the inquiry.
As controversy raged last week over whether Victoria Wright was accorded special treatment, an anguished Cathie Wright maintained that she had tried to help her daughter as a concerned mother and responsive lawmaker and had done nothing improper. She has shielded her daughter from the press; Victoria Wright would not be interviewed for this story.
Cathie Wright, meanwhile, asserted that fellow Republican Bradbury is acting out of spite because she went to the State Police rather than to his office or Simi Valley police about unrelated incidents involving her daughter. In addition, she and Speaker Brown have suggested that Bradbury is trying to destroy Wright’s political career on behalf of rival GOP lawmakers in Ventura County.
Others involved in the investigation have also said they did nothing wrong or declined to comment. DMV officials, for example, said that nothing improper was done for Victoria Wright, although James E. Dunn, a DMV traffic safety manager who reinstated her license on a restricted basis in July, acknowledged that the “sensitivity” of the matter led to his involvement.
Brown denied calling Curtis but added, “even if I had, it wouldn’t be improper.”
Victoria Wright’s license was revoked Thursday. And with a possible jail sentence hanging over her, public attention has shifted toward the young woman herself, who is “very scared by all this and feels she’s been pulled into something way beyond her capabilities to handle,” according to one of her advisers. She is also said to fear losing her job as a cashier and clerk at a Thousand Oaks supermarket.
Meanwhile, questions are being raised about someone who would run up so many traffic violations, even after it was apparent that driving too fast was a recurrent problem.
By all accounts, Victoria Wright is a headstrong young woman who has also been plagued by troubles when she is not behind the wheel.
“Vickie was a tough kid and hard to control,” said one person long familiar with the family. As others did, the source requested anonymity. “Vickie’s always had problems.”
Cathie Wright, 59, who has often been called stubborn and hard-nosed herself, has fought a rear-guard action for years to resolve her only child’s troubles after the 1982 death of her husband, Victor Wright, political associates say. A blustery ex-state police trooper from Chicago, he worked as a printer in Burbank before he became seriously ill with emphysema and heart problems.
Cathie Wright said she has worked hard to keep her daughter divorced from her public life, which friends say has become an all-consuming passion. The legislator lamented last week, “It’s my job that’s putting her through all this.”
Except for a semester at Cerritos Community College, Victoria Wright’s formal education ended in August, 1981, with graduation from Apollo High School in Simi Valley, an alternative program for students considered at risk of dropping out of the conventional school system. Apollo emphasizes raising students’ self-esteem.
Cathie Wright’s political associates recall that she repeatedly expressed frustration at her inability to control her daughter’s often reckless behavior and her choice of friends, particularly boyfriends. Most recently, Victoria Wright was involved for a year with Alan Wayne Keel, 33, a transient who is doing 60 days in the Ventura County Jail after pleading no contest to battery charges of grabbing her by the neck Jan. 27.
Her mother is fiercely protective of Victoria, who she says is her only family. The two have clashed bitterly on occasion, others say. Mother and daughter share a modest three-bedroom home in a quiet middle-class neighborhood.
For the past eight years Cathie Wright has scrambled to juggle her roles as mother and assemblywoman. The post demands four days a week in Sacramento and many evenings and weekends attending political and community events in her sprawling 37th District, which includes parts of Los Angeles, Ventura and Kern counties.
“Her father was ill for 10 years, and her mother lives in a political fishbowl,” Wright said of Victoria recently. “You’re darned right she’s had problems.”
Wright, a former Simi Valley mayor, offered an explanation for the traffic violations last year. This included an oft-repeated assertion that her daughter has been the victim of harassment by the Simi Valley Police Department, which Simi Valley officials say is untrue.
“Vickie has grown up believing that her last name could circumvent some of the problems that she’s been involved in,” Wright told a DMV hearing officer when she represented her daughter at a suspension hearing in June, 1988.
“Also, my husband, who has passed away, instilled upon Vickie that she could use her last name to avoid citations. Unfortunately, Vickie believed this and drove accordingly. Now, the local law enforcements are citing Vickie for offenses whereby she’s only traveling with the flow of traffic. Local law enforcements were upset with my deceased husband’s attitude.”
With his gruff manner and deep, husky voice, Victor Wright was never shy about invoking his wife’s political offices to badger Simi Valley officials to do things, said several individuals who knew him.
Nevertheless, it is Assemblywoman Wright’s contacts with Simi Valley police on her daughter’s behalf that are now in question. Moreover, Victoria Wright seemed to bring at least some of her troubles on herself.
At a DMV hearing in October, 1987, that resulted in her license being suspended, Victoria Wright “claimed most violations in the past were received in a high-powered Mustang to and from work,” the report says. “Mustang had too much horsepower” so she replaced it. “However, last speed citation was received in a rental car.”
On two occasions, DMV records show, Victoria Wright received speeding tickets the day after she was involved in accidents. She now has a 1988 Toyota, DMV records show.
No one was injured in any of her accidents, and she was never cited for any violations in the accidents, DMV records show. Also, she was never found to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Her driving history is not entirely clear from the DMV files because the agency does not necessarily keep complete records more than three years. Some incomplete records do exist, however, for previous years.
The first time the DMV moved to suspend Victoria Wright’s license was Nov. 21, 1981, after she received four speeding tickets in 11 months. The outcome of those proceedings was not available from the record.
She has since been the subject of at least nine more hearings. Her license was suspended at least twice, in 1986 and again in 1988. She appealed both times, and her license was restored.
She was allowed to drive on a probationary license from May 1, 1987, until it was revoked Thursday. This followed a year in which Victoria Wright apparently escaped a jail term because the court reporting system broke down and regained her suspended license on a restricted basis after her mother’s intervention with the DMV.
Investigators are believed to be closely inspecting the sequence of events between the time Victoria Wright came before Judge Curtis on April 18, 1988, and the hearing before DMV official Dunn on July 18, 1988. This was a period when Cathie Wright appears to have been heavily involved.
On April 18, 1988, Victoria Wright went before Curtis for two speeding tickets and driving without a valid license. He placed her on three years’ probation with a 30-day suspended sentence and instructed her to inform the court within 10 days of any future offenses. She subsequently received five tickets, none of which she reported as instructed.
On May 18, Victoria Wright was cited by Simi Valley police for speeding and for not possessing a vehicle registration. Four days later, the California Highway Patrol ticketed her for speeding and not wearing a seat belt.
These tickets were handled by Judge Clark, who was assigned to the Simi Valley traffic court at the time; Curtis was sitting in the Ventura traffic court.
Clark said Friday that if he had known that Curtis had placed Victoria Wright on probation, the new tickets and entire case would have been referred back to Curtis.
“I didn’t find out that she was on probation until last Friday,” Clark said. “It wasn’t in the files.”
The DMV record on Wright, usually reviewed by judges in such cases, includes a notation that she was on probation. But it was not on the computer printout that went to Clark last spring, said Florence Prushan, the Municipal Court manager. “Nobody knows” why it was omitted, she said.
Clark, who is known as a tough, hard-line judge, agreed to the unusual step of dismissing both speeding counts in return for Victoria Wright’s attending traffic school; he fined her $93 for the two lesser counts.
Ordinarily, after an offender attends traffic school, listening to eight hours of safety lectures, one moving offense is dismissed, and the record is placed in a confidential DMV file accessible only to judges, DMV statisticians and researchers.
The offense does not count toward the point totals leading to license suspensions, and is removed from records accessible to law enforcement officers, insurance companies and the public. Only one offense can be placed in this confidential file in any 36-month period.
Practices on traffic school vary from one judicial district to another, according to DMV spokeswoman McGuiness. In some areas, she said, offenders cannot use the option more than once in three years, and in others, judges do not accept it at all.
Clark declined Friday to explain why he allowed Victoria Wright to use traffic school for two offenses or to respond to reports of his alleged meeting with Cathie Wright. Court records show that Clark held an ex parte hearing--meeting with the defendant or a representative of the defendant outside of court--on the matter, Prushan said.
Clark acted on Victoria Wright’s case on June 27, 1988, two weeks after a DMV hearing officer had suspended her license for six months, according to court records. The DMV gets involved when a driver has received enough points for violations to trigger a license suspension or revocation.
At the DMV hearing that led to the suspension, Cathie Wright appeared on her daughter’s behalf and asked the agency to grant a restricted license, only allowing travel to and from work, rather than outright suspension. The hearing officer refused, noting that some of the citations occurred while commuting to work.
Next, the legislator wrote DMV Director A.A. (Del) Pierce on June 22 to request an administrative review of her daughter’s file. Pierce assigned Dunn, a 25-year DMV employee, to examine the handling of the case. Dunn said he performs this task for Pierce as often as 25 times a month.
Victoria Wright then received another traffic conviction and asked for a hearing. Dunn took the unusual step of traveling from Sacramento to Van Nuys to conduct the hearing himself. He said he had not held a hearing in at least six years.
At this point, Victoria Wright had had at least 12 speeding convictions in the previous three years in addition to an extensive earlier record. Despite calling her record “horrendous,” Dunn said he decided to “give her the benefit of the doubt and restrict her driving to and from work.” He also placed her on probation, directed her to go to traffic school and told her to advise him of any future offenses, something she failed to do.
She did, however, go to traffic school. Her single traffic school attendance--at the Tri-County Traffic School in Thousand Oaks on July 23--was apparently used to clear both speeding tickets handled by Clark as well as satisfying the DMV probation requirement.
The DMV has no objection to the fact that Wright was able to make multiple use of the traffic school attendance, spokeswoman McGuiness said.
By the time she lost her license last week and faced a return visit to Curtis’ court, Victoria Wright had picked up a total of five new moving violations and had been in two accidents since Curtis placed her on probation. Three of the tickets and one accident followed Dunn’s decision to grant her a restricted license.
Her attorney is expected to appeal the revocation at a scheduled DMV hearing in Van Nuys on Wednesday.
Staff writer Gerry Brailo Spencer contributed to this story.
THE RECORD: Tickets and accidents involving Victoria Wright Jan. 1, 1981: ticket for speeding. March 11, 1981: ticket for speeding. June 10, 1981: ticket for speeding. Nov. 12, 1981: accident, no injuries. Nov. 13, 1981: ticket for speeding. Nov. 19, 1982: ticket for passing on the right. June 9, 1983: accident, no injuries. Nov. 10, 1983: ticket for running a stop sign. Feb. 15, 1984: ticket for speeding. Sept. 10, 1984: accident, no injuries. Oct. 8, 1984: ticket for running a yellow light. Feb. 27, 1985: ticket for running a stop sign. May 26, 1985: ticket for speeding. Oct. 5, 1985: ticket for speeding. Nov. 13, 1985: ticket for speeding. Dec. 4, 1986: ticket for speeding. Dec. 28, 1986: ticket for speeding. Jan. 7, 1987: ticket for speeding. Feb. 27, 1987: ticket for speeding. April 19, 1987: ticket for speeding. June 19, 1987: accident, no injuries. June 20, 1987: ticket for speeding. Sept. 8, 1987: ticket for speeding. Nov. 8, 1987: ticket for speeding. Jan. 27, 1988: ticket for speeding and no proof of license. March 6, 1988: ticket for speeding, no license and no proof of insurance. April 29, 1988: accident, no injuries. May 18, 1988: ticket for speeding and no registration. May 22, 1988: ticket for speeding and no seat belt. Sept. 7, 1988: ticket for speeding, rear window obstruction and no proof of insurance. Sept. 12, 1988: ticket for speeding, failure to stop at a stop sign and no valid license. Dec. 4, 1988: ticket for speeding, following another vehicle too close. Dec. 9, 1988: accident, no injuries. Source: Ventura Municipal Court and California Department of Motor Vehicles.