The Sacramento Bee spoke with suspended state Sen. Rod Wright in Sacramento on Tuesday as he stood across the street from the Capitol, shaking hands and greeting friends. Wright said he was in town to raise money for his legal defense fund and attend a retirement party for a lobbyist.
Wright, a Democrat, was suspended with pay from the Senate in March, following a jury’s verdict in January that he was guilty of perjury and voter fraud. The jury found that Wright broke the law by running for office representing the Inglewood area of Los Angeles because he lived outside the district boundaries in the tonier neighborhood of Baldwin Hills. Prosecutors showed pictures of the Baldwin Hills home, where his Maserati was parked and closets were full of his clothes.
Wright said he followed legal requirements to run for the office, and his attorneys are asking the judge to throw out the jury’s verdicts and grant him a new trial. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Sept. 3. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
You’re not the only legislator to have multiple residences, but you are in this unusual circumstance of being prosecuted, and having a jury find you guilty. How do you think your situation compares with your colleagues?
I don’t know anybody else’s fact pattern but my own. So I don’t purport to say I know what anybody else did or didn’t do. I know that all the houses in question belong to me It’s not like I went and drummed up some place out of whole cloth I own the place in question. I’m the taxpayer on the place in question. Now how often am I there? Well if I understood the law to put a time constraint or something like that then that’s what I would have done. I’ve never read anything like that in any law that I’ve ever seen relative to domicile. I’ve never seen anything that says if you have more than one residence, the place where you spend the most time is your domicile I’ve never read anything in statute that said the nicest place, the place where you spend the most time, the place where you have the most of your stuff, none of those are things I’ve ever seen that spoke to that. All I know how to do is follow the law as I understand it.
Your jury verdict came in in January. Then in February there was the Ron Calderon indictment. Then in March Leland Yee was indicted. Even though the charges against you and the charges against them are really different, you were all suspended on the same day and the public conversation is casting all three of you together as the three suspended senators. How do you feel at being lumped in with those two when the circumstances in your case are so different?
Life ain’t fair. I don’t know the facts of what happened in Ronnie’s life. I don’t know the facts of what happened in Leland’s life. That’s why they’ll go to trial. Just as anybody, I wish them both well. I hope they have trials and they are found not guilty. That’s what they pled and I believe them. The only thing I can do is worry about the stuff I have. And you’re right. We’re arguing about which of my houses, that I pay taxes on, that I’ve owned for a combined total of close to 50 years, is my domicile. That’s the essence of it.
Is the third house (interest groups) up here receptive in your fundraising efforts? Are people helping you out?
Some people do and some people don’t. Fundraising stuff is publicly disclosed. So rather than me talk about it you could go look it up.
What kind of work are you doing?
Working on trying to stay out of jail. At this juncture I have an all but singular focus.
How did you feel about the Senate suspending you?
At the end of the day, the Senate has to look at protecting the institution. It’s not about me. You have to do what you perceive to be in the best interest of the institution. I respect that. The institution is bigger than two or three members. I have to recognize that’s the way life is. My obligation is to work my end in the court and then come back on my own.
So do you expect you’ll be back in December?
I am fully optimistic. If I didn’t think so I wouldn’t have spent all the money to file and do all the things that we’re doing. If I thought I did something wrong I would say, “You know what, I messed up and they caught me.” But at no point did anybody say we found something he said that wasn’t true. They didn’t attempt to say that. All the houses belong to me. Now if a black man owning a Maserati is illegal then I should get life. Because I have a Maserati, a Jaguar and a couple other things. So if that’s illegal, then hell I’m guilty as sin. If a black guy shopping at Nieman Marcus is illegal then I’m guilty as sin. When I think about what I went through in court, that’s what they talked about. No one ever said this guy lied and this is where he lied. They just said, he shops at Nieman Marcus. He’s got a Maserati. He’s got fancy clothes. He’s got guns. Well I don’t know, the last time I checked they don’t ask white people where they get guns or where they get Maseratis or where they get other kinds of stuff. So I don’t know. It’s like nobody ever said he committed perjury and this is where he did it. He told a lie. No I didn’t. I own the house. My name is on the deed and it’s been there since 1977.
So do you feel like the prosecution was wrong or unfair to focus on the question of where you live?
Obviously I did. If you look at the elections code and you find the word “live” in there, I will kiss your ass on this parkway. There is no such language in the code that says “live.” So we start from, you’re accusing me of something that doesn’t exist in law. There is no such thing. That’s what they said in court, “He doesn’t live there.” There is nothing in the government, elections or any other code that says “live.” It says “domicile,” and it’s defined. I fully qualify under the term domicile. If you say where do I live ... I live in Sacramento. But by law I could have more than one residence If I’m spending 5 nights a week here and two nights in Los Angeles on the weekend, where do I live? If that becomes the standard. And if I’m here for nine to 10 months a year, where do I live? That’s why it was never in the code that way because it would be impossible.
I think for most jurors it’s an easy question. It’s not complicated. Where you live is where you rest your head every night.
Then in that case, I live in Sacramento. That’s where I rest my head most every night I pay for a place in Sacramento. I have a phone in Sacramento. But I live in Baldwin Hills. OK. Is my Baldwin Hills place nicer than my Sacramento place? Yeah. Is that the definition of domicile? No. Not in anything I’ve ever seen or read. Is my Inglewood place nicer than my Baldwin Hills place? Matter of opinion. The Inglewood place I share with somebody. How often do I go there? That’s up to me. If there was something that said how often I have to be there, then I would do that.