Jurors in a trial against state Sen. Rod Wright will hear closing arguments Thursday in the case that has questioned whether the Democratic legislator defrauded voters when he ran for his Los Angeles-area Senate seat in 2008.
State law requires legislative candidates live in the district they seek to represent. Prosecutors in Los Angeles allege Wright did not live in the Inglewood home he listed as his address when he ran for office that year, and instead lived in Baldwin Hills, a swankier community outside the boundaries of his working-class district. They have charged him with eight counts of perjury and voter fraud.
Wright has pleaded not guilty, and argues he met all the legal criteria for running in what was then the 25th Senate District, including moving possessions into the Inglewood home he had owned since 1977 – where the woman he considers his stepmother lives – and registering to vote at the address.
Wright faces up to eight years in prison if convicted. But he would not automatically lose his seat in the Senate, said Greg Schmidt, secretary of the Senate.
“The (Senate) decides whether people stay or go,” Schmidt said, adding that two-thirds of the 40-member house would have to vote to expel a member who is convicted of a felony.
He pointed to a letter of advice from the Legislature’s lawyers that says the Legislature has “absolute authority to judge the qualifications of its members.”
“A criminal conviction for the crime of perjury relating to the residence of a member is not a constitutionally specified disqualification for that office, nor does a court imposing such a criminal conviction have jurisdiction to disqualify a member,” says the letter written by Lara Bierman Nelson, deputy legislative counsel.
A major focus of Wright’s trial in Los Angeles Superior Court, according to media reports, has been the legal distinction between a “domicile” – a long-term home – and a “residence,” or temporary dwelling. Wright said he bought the Baldwin Hills home in 2000 to use as an office for his real estate investment business and never considered it his legal domicile.
Neighbors testified that they routinely saw Wright at the Baldwin Hills house, while Wright’s tenant at the Inglewood home testified she had never seen him spend the night or fix a meal in Inglewood, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Yet during testimony last week, Wright said he never claimed a homeowners tax exemption, registered to vote or applied for a driver’s license using the Baldwin Hills address. Under cross examination on Tuesday, Wright cited a Tuolumne County case in which the court ruled that a local official could claim a home she once lived in as her legal domicile even though she had moved away.
“I can only tell you what my understanding was,” Wright said to Deputy District Attorney Bjorn Dodd, according to the Times.
Wright’s attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson, said in an interview Wednesday he feels the trial has gone well for his client.
“The question is, did he commit perjury when he listed on his voter registration that his domicile is in Inglewood? ... Did he vote knowing he had no right to vote?” McKesson said. “The prosecution has failed to prove that.”