The criminal sentencing hearing for suspended state Sen. Rod Wright has been delayed for a third time as his lawyers argue that the judge should throw out the jury’s verdicts that found Wright guilty of eight felonies for lying about where he lived when he ran for office in 2008.
Wright’s sentencing hearing – originally scheduled for March, then delayed until May, then delayed until July 21 – is now scheduled for Sept. 3.
The delay means Wright, who was found guilty in January and has been suspended with pay, will still be getting a paycheck after the Legislature recesses on Aug. 31.
“We filed a lengthy document, and the prosecutor needs time to respond,” said Wright’s attorney, Winston Kevin McKesson.
Wright’s lawyers are asking the court for two things: to not enter, or ratify, the jury’s guilty verdicts from January, and to grant Wright a new trial.
Los Angeles County prosecutors charged Wright, a Democrat, with perjury and voter fraud, arguing that he broke the law in running to represent the Inglewood area in the state Senate because he lived outside the district in the tonier neighborhood of Baldwin Hills. Wright’s lawyers argued that he owned homes in both areas, and that the Inglewood home is his legal domicile, allowing him to run for office in that district.
Testimony at the trial noted that Wright rarely slept or prepared meals at the Inglewood home, which he rents to a family member, and prosecutors showed photos of Wright’s clothing in the closets of the Baldwin Hills home with his cars parked outside.
Wright’s attorneys maintain that state law concerning residency requirements for legislative candidates is vague. A core argument in their request for a new trial is that the prosecution misled by focusing on where Wright lives.
“The statute doesn’t require that you live in the district,” McKesson said. “It was a problem with the continued use of the word ‘live’ – not only by the court but by the media as well.”
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has not yet responded to the motions asking for a new trial and a not-guilty verdict, spokeswoman Jane Robison said.
Many legislators own multiple homes or change their legal addresses as political opportunities arise. Political opponents have brought challenges in some instances, but Wright’s case marks the rare criminal prosecution over the question of residency in a legislative race.
Wright continues to earn his $7,543 per month pay as a state senator even though the Senate voted to suspend him in March, taking away his ability to participate in the legislative process. Senate Democrats quashed Republican efforts to expel Wright and take away his pay, with Democratic Senate leader Darrell Steinberg arguing that permanently expelling him from the Senate was premature because the jury’s guilty verdicts could be overturned by a judge. Steinberg also said the state Constitution doesn’t allow the Senate to yank the pay of members who are temporarily suspended.
Facing an unprecedented spate of criminal charges for state senators – including federal corruption indictments for suspended Democratic Sens. Leland Yee and Ron Calderon – Steinberg this year wrote a constitutional amendment that, if approved by lawmakers and voters, would allow the Legislature to take away the pay of suspended legislators.
Steinberg issued a statement Monday urging the court in Wright’s case to decide whether the jury’s verdicts stand before the Legislature begins its next two-year session on Dec. 1.
“This latest delay sought by the prosecution reflects the complexity of the case and ambiguities in existing law surrounding domicile and residency,” Steinberg’s statement said.
“However, these deferments weigh upon our institution and they cannot continue indefinitely. With just one month of this legislative session remaining and with Sen. Wright’s defense brief already prepared and completed in time for July’s hearing, I urge the court to resolve this issue before the new legislative session begins.”