Convicted lawmaker Rod Wright introduces bill to convert some felonies to misdemeanors

02/01/2014 12:00 AM

10/22/2014 2:01 PM

Two days after a jury said Sen. Rod Wright committed eight felonies related to living outside the district he represents, the Inglewood Democrat introduced a bill that would allow nonviolent felons to have their crimes downgraded to misdemeanors.

Senate Bill 929 would have allowed courts to deem felony offenses to be misdemeanors in cases in which the felon wasn’t sentenced to state prison for the crime, the conviction wasn’t for a “serious or violent felony” and the crime didn’t require registration as a sex offender. Convicts with pending charges or convictions within the preceding five years would not qualify for the felony downgrade.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who stripped Wright of a committee chairmanship this week but stopped short of asking him to resign, reacted quickly after The Sacramento Bee broke news of the measure Friday morning.

“Putting the merits of the policy aside, it’s the wrong author at the wrong time,” said Steinberg spokesman Rhys Williams.

Wright’s office did not return a call asking why he introduced the legislation, but it did tell the Los Angeles Times that the measure was not intended to apply to his case. Wright in the past has supported legislation to remedy what he believes are inequities in the criminal-justice system.

Still, after the Senate’s top official put out word that the bill was dead, Wright spokeswoman Jennifer Hanson said her boss didn’t oppose the decision and that “he recognizes that public perception under present circumstances casts a different light on his involvement with this issue, and he will not be moving the bill.”

The measure’s introduction and swift demise added an ironic epilogue to a Los Angeles jury’s verdict on Tuesday that Wright lied when he claimed an Inglewood home as his domicile while running for office in 2008 and again in 2012. Prosecutors said Wright really lived in Baldwin Hills, a tonier area outside the district he represents.

Part of a state law enacted last year says public officials convicted of a felony in pursuit of an elected position must forfeit their pensions from the date of the crime forward. Wright, 61, has a CalPERS pension account established during his tenure as a legislative aide from 1977 to 1981, but pension experts weren’t sure whether the forfeiture law would apply to that benefit. As a lawmaker elected after 1990, Wright has received no pension benefits during his Senate service or for his time in the Assembly from 1996 to 2002.

A CalPERS spokeswoman declined to comment on Wright’s case, other than to say he doesn’t currently draw a pension from the fund.

Even if the bill had gained traction in the Legislature and with Gov. Jerry Brown, the measure probably would not have become law until next year. Assuming a judge doesn’t overturn the jury’s verdict, Wright is due for sentencing in mid-March, although appeals could delay when he might go to prison.

It’s unknown when Wright submitted his proposal to the Legislature’s attorneys, who craft bill proposals into legal language that can be introduced. Last Friday was the deadline to submit bill requests to the Legislative Counsel in time to meet the Feb. 21 bill-introduction deadline.

With 120 lawmakers seeking language for dozens of bill proposals apiece, it’s highly unlikely that the idea for SB 929 could have been turned around between Tuesday’s guilty verdict and Thursday’s introduction.

There was no indication Friday that Wright has carried previous legislation with the same goal as SB 929.

Over the years, though, Wright has introduced several measures that seek to ease the criminal-justice system’s impact on suspected gang members and help the job prospects of people who have had their convictions sealed.

Last year, he introduced a bill meant to tighten the rules against employers asking prospective employees about past convictions that have been dismissed or sealed by a court.

“If we want to break the revolving door cycle of crime, we must give folks a fair chance at a job without the discrimination of having a criminal record,” Wright’s office said in support of the bill.

Brown also signed a Wright bill that requires local law enforcement agencies to notify the parents or guardians of a child being added to the state’s gang-member database.

But in 2011, Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed someone covered by a gang injunction to petition to be removed if he can prove he is not a gang member.

“There is no uniform, inexpensive way to be removed from the list, and the onus should not be on the individual to incur those costs,” Wright’s office wrote.

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