SACRAMENTO — Although state Sen. Roderick D. Wright won’t be sentenced on his felony convictions until March, judgment day from the Democrat’s peers in the Legislature may be imminent.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said Wednesday that he would consult with his caucus and “make a full set of recommendations within the next couple of days.”
Wright, who was accused of lying about where he lived when he ran for his seat and voted in several elections, was convicted by a Los Angeles County jury Tuesday on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud. He could receive more than eight years behind bars and a ban from further elective office.
His attorney has said that Wright intends to appeal. In the meantime, the Senate has been scrambling to determine what action, if any, it should take — including whether to vote on an expulsion. Ousting the senator would require a two-thirds vote of the upper house.
Wright is the eighth officeholder or candidate — and the first state legislator — convicted of violating residency laws since the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office formed its Public Integrity Division in 2001. The others included members of city councils or school boards in Vernon, Compton, West Covina and Huntington Park, the D.A.'s office said.
Former Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife have been charged with 23 felonies involving whether they lived in the council district he represented. They pleaded not guilty; their trial has not yet been scheduled.
Wright claimed an Inglewood rental complex he owned as his legal residence when he ran for the Senate seat he first won in 2008. Prosecutors said his true home was a house in Baldwin Hills, outside the district he represents.
In a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Wright, who remains in Los Angeles, said he was conferring with his attorneys and had not “even thought about” whether to take a leave of absence from his job while appealing his conviction. “It’s not something I’ve looked into,” he said.
As for the verdict, he said he was “disappointed. But life moves on. You have to assess where you are and what your options are.”
Ethics and legal experts said the legislator’s conviction underscores the seriousness with which laws governing residency requirements must be taken.
“People have a right to expect public officials to obey the law,” said Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute, which seeks to promote ethical behavior in individuals, businesses and institutions. “Undercutting the spirit of the law is not the way we want this country to be run.”
Wright said he believed he was doing everything legally necessary when he took steps to run from the Inglewood property he has owned since 1977, and his attorney called the law murky.
But “there is a pretty strong norm that you are in the community you seek to represent,” said Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt. The Legislature set up such laws also to provide “a way of ensuring that a voter not from your community is not deciding who your representative should be,” he said.
One issue being discussed by Senate leaders is whether to take action now or wait until after Wright’s sentencing or even the exhaustion of any appeals, said Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside), chairman of the Senate’s ethics committee.
If the conviction stands, Roth said, Wright should resign or be removed from office: “I certainly think that if the appellate process has been exausted and the verdict is upheld on appeal, that his service in the Senate would undoubtedly need to terminate.”
Possibilities in the interim include suspension and such sanctions as removal from Senate committees.
Steinberg stripped Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) of all committee assignments after federal allegations of bribery were made against him, even though Calderon has not been charged with a crime.
Steinberg announced a shakeup of committee assignments Wednesday but left Wright in his positions, which include chairman of the Governmental Organization Committee. The powerful panel acts on bills involving horse racing, gambling, the National Guard, alcoholic beverages and management of public safety emergencies, among other matters.
The last time a California state senator was expelled was in 1905, when three were ousted for “malfeasance in office,” said Senate Secretary Greg Schmidt. Assembly officials have found no record of any expulsions in the lower house, said Jon Waldie, chief administrative officer.
Mcgreevy reported from Sacramento, Merl from Los Angeles.