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State Sen. Roderick Wright sentenced for perjury, voter fraud

State Sen. Roderick Wright sentenced for perjury, voter fraud
California Sen. Roderick Wright stares toward the ceiling in court Friday where he was sentenced to 90 days in jail and banned for life from future public office. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

Democratic state Sen. Roderick D. Wright, convicted earlier this year on felony perjury and voting fraud charges, was sentenced Friday to 90 days in county jail and barred for life from holding public office.

After turning down Wright's request for a new trial, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy also sentenced the senator to three years' probation and 1,500 hours of community service.

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He was ordered to surrender and begin serving his sentence Oct. 31.

Some observers have speculated that Wright will serve little or no time behind bars, given his heretofore clean record, the nonviolent nature of his crime and the severe crowding in county jail facilities.

Wright did not speak with reporters after his sentencing, but one of his attorneys, Winston Kevin McKesson, said he would appeal the case.

It was not immediately clear whether Wright now must resign from his Senate seat or if he would be expelled by a two-thirds vote of his colleagues.

On Friday, legislative leaders including state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) called for Wright to quit.

"Sen. Wright has a right to appeal as a citizen, but his constituents cannot continue without representation in the state Senate," Steinberg said in a statement. "I have stated from the beginning my belief that somebody convicted of a felony while in office cannot continue to serve. I have therefore asked Senator Wright to resign."

Steinberg did not say Friday whether he would seek an expulsion vote if Wright refuses to step down. A Steinberg aide said the leader talked to Wright by telephone Friday but did not reveal their conversation. Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar predicted Wright would be expelled if he does not step down.

Steinberg said a review is needed of how residency laws are enforced in different counties.

Once Wright's office is vacant, the governor would have 14 days to start the process for holding a special election to fill the vacancy. Wright has two years remaining on his term.

His district is heavily Democratic, making it likely the party would retain the seat in an election.

Wright, 62, who represents the Inglewood area, was convicted in January on eight felony counts in a case that centered on whether he had lied to qualify for office.

During the trial, prosecutors said — and jurors later agreed — that Wright had contrived to make it appear that he lived in a rental complex he owns in Inglewood in order to run for the seat in 2008.

His true residence, or "domicile" under the state Elections Code, was actually a Baldwin Hills house outside the district, prosecutors said. Candidates for state office are required to live in the districts they seek to represent.

Wright said he believed he had taken the necessary steps to establish the Inglewood property as his domicile and had not intended to deceive voters when he arranged to rent a bedroom in the unit occupied by a tenant he considered his stepmother.

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But prosecutors offered evidence that the lawmaker had moved only a few personal belongings to the Inglewood address and spent most of his time before winning office at the Baldwin Hills house.

And the judge made it clear Friday she didn't buy Wright's arguments.

"It didn't pass the smell test then [when jurors convicted him] and it doesn't now," Kennedy said.

She added that there was an "arrogance" to Wright's actions in trying to circumvent the law, an assumption "that the law doesn't apply to him … the law applies to all of us."

Kennedy said she believed term limits were prompting some politicians to bend the rules in their "scramble" to find the next office to seek.

Several of Wright's supporters in the courtroom gasped when the judge ordered Wright to spend time in jail. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, for whom Wright once worked, state Sen. Holly Mitchell and Assemblyman Steve Bradford, all Los Angeles-area Democrats, showed up for the sentencing, along with a host of others. They included a woman, dabbing at tears with a handkerchief, who identified herself as Wright's godmother.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Bjorn Dodd had asked that Wright be given six months in jail but said after court that he was satisfied with the lesser sentence.

Prosecutors used evidence uncovered in 2009 searches of the Inglewood and Baldwin Hills properties to help win a grand jury indictment in September 2010.

Wright was suspended with pay from the state Senate in March, along with two other Democratic senators facing criminal charges in separate cases: Leland Yee of San Francisco and Ronald S. Calderon of Montebello. Both have pleaded not guilty.

While the suspensions temporarily cost the Democrats their supermajority in the Senate, most observers expect them to win it back, possibly as soon as the next election.

Richard Alarcon, a former state legislator and Los Angeles city councilman from the east San Fernando Valley, and his wife were convicted on similar charges recently. The Alarcons, who have not been sentenced, said they had done nothing wrong and are seeking a new trial.

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