A jury of his peers found Sen. Rod Wright guilty of eight felonies this week, but his peers in the California Senate say he can stay on the job, at least for now.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said Thursday that he is removing Wright from his position as chairman of the Senate’s Governmental Organization Committee but is not asking his fellow Democrat to leave office.
The Democratic leader said “anybody convicted of a felony while in office” should not continue to serve, but that the process in Wright’s case has not reached that point. Steinberg said the judge must first find the jury’s verdict valid and issue a sentence in a proceeding scheduled for March 12. He said it is also possible that an appellate court could then stay the conviction.
“Where we stand today, there is no final conviction, but a jury verdict,” Steinberg said. “Unless and until there is a final conviction for a felony, I do not believe it is appropriate or necessary to expel Senator Wright or ask him to resign.”
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A legal scholar contacted by The Bee said it is “extremely rare” for a judge to overturn a jury’s verdict.
“When the jury comes back and says, ‘Guilty,’ then the person is convicted,” said John Myers, an expert in criminal law at McGeorge School of Law.
A Los Angeles jury on Tuesday found Wright guilty on all counts in a case that challenged whether he lives in the legislative district he represents.
Prosecutors alleged that Wright did not live in the Inglewood home he listed as his address when he ran for office in 2008, and instead lived in Baldwin Hills, a tonier community outside the boundaries of his working-class district. They charged him with eight felonies – two counts of perjury, one count of filing a false declaration of candidacy and five counts of fraudulent voting.
Wright is planning to appeal, and his attorney said he is working on multiple strategies – including asking the judge to overturn the jury’s verdict.
“Right now, we are playing it close to the vest, but we do plan a vigorous appeal,” Winston Kevin McKesson said. “We think we have good grounds, but we don’t want to go into the grounds yet until we finalize things.”
Throughout the trial, prosecutors at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office said that if convicted, Wright will be barred from ever again holding elective office. That requirement will take effect upon sentencing, a spokesman for the office said Thursday.
“This is the case whether the sentence is prison or probation,” Ricardo Santiago, a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, said in an email.
Lawyers for the state Legislature, however, have argued that it’s up to the Senate – not the court – to decide if a senator who is convicted of a felony can continue to hold office. It would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate to expel a member who was a convicted felon.
Wright, whose term ends in 2016, is suffering a sanction by losing his chairmanship of the committee that oversees California’s gambling and alcohol laws, as well as chairmanships of a gambling subcommittee and a select committee on job retention, Steinberg said.
He emphasized that he is removing Wright from the chairmanships at Wright’s request. Steinberg is allowing Wright to continue serving as a member of the Budget and Fiscal Review; Energy, Utilities and Communications; and Human Services committees.
It’s a stark contrast to the action he took against another Democratic colleague just a few months ago. Steinberg moved swiftly to remove Sen. Ron Calderon from all his committee assignments after allegations surfaced in an FBI affidavit in October that he had accepted bribes from an undercover agent seeking to influence legislation.
Calderon said at the time that Steinberg was treating him as if he had been convicted of wrongdoing, when he hadn’t even been charged. Steinberg argued then that he removed Calderon’s committee assignments because he is obliged “to uphold the code of ethics of the Senate and the standard of conduct expected of elected officials.”
On Thursday, Steinberg said Wright’s case is “very different.”
“I evaluate each situation on its merits,” Steinberg said. “The underlying allegations (in Calderon’s case) go to the very heart of what we do inside of these chambers, and inside this Capitol.”
Wright’s defense hinged largely on an argument that California law is murky when it comes to residency rules for legislative candidates. Steinberg said Thursday that it’s an issue he hopes the Legislature will address.
“I do think that this whole question of domicile and residence and where you live needs to be looked at by the Legislature and clarified,” he said. “I think there is a good reason to require a real genuine and sustaining connection to your district. But there’s a lot of ambiguity.”
Justin Levitt, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School, said Steinberg is smart to hold off on punishing Wright because there is more to unfold in the judicial process.
“There’s a lot of stuff to be determined, which may be why the Senate is not taking immediate political action,” Levitt said. “It’s not crazy for them to want to see how this plays out, both in terms of potential sentence and potential appeals.”
Even the Republican leader of the state Senate said he agreed with Steinberg’s decision.
“The removal of Senator Wright from his committee chairmanship is appropriate. The Senate will be able to make more informed decisions once the sentencing process is completed in March,” said a statement from Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
GOP political consultant Rob Stutzman said Republicans are smart to be cautious in their response to both Wright’s guilty verdict and the federal investigation of Calderon. Problems can plague politicians of both parties.
“You’ve seen Republicans in the Legislature act with restraint and respect to their Democratic colleagues. I think that’s wise. At a certain point you have to be careful about glass houses,” Stutzman said.
“Sometimes the best thing to do when your opponent is making problems for themselves is not to say anything, and that’s probably the best way for Republicans to proceed.”