Democratic state Sen. Rod Wright, sentenced to jail Friday for being convicted of perjury and voting fraud, resigned from the California Senate on Monday but plans to stay on the payroll for one more week.
Wright sent Senate officials a resignation letter Monday stating that he’s stepping down effective Sept. 22.
“My Senate career is over. My legislative career is over,” Wright said in a phone call with The Sacramento Bee. “I don’t believe now that I did anything wrong. Certainly nothing criminal. But a jury saw differently, and we did not defend ourselves well enough to win that case. So I have to live with that.”
Wright said he plans to return to Sacramento to clean out his office before he begins his 90-day jail sentence on Oct. 31.
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California law requires legislative candidates to live in the districts they seek to represent. A Los Angeles judge and jury convicted Wright of eight felonies for claiming a home in Inglewood as his official address while he actually lived in Baldwin Hills, which is outside his district’s boundaries. The judge said he is barred for life from holding public office.
Wright, a frequent gun-rights advocate during his 12 years in the Legislature, is now barred from owning firearms because he is a convicted felon. He said Monday he had sold his guns and is evaluating whether to appeal his conviction.
“I would like to have my rights, such as they are, restored from being a felon. But it’s also very expensive and I’m not sure I can afford to pay for it,” he said.
Even if he appealed and won, Wright would not be able to run for the Legislature again because of term limits.
Two Democrats who had been raising money to run for Wright’s Senate seat in 2016 announced Monday that they will run in a special election to replace him – Assemblymen Isadore Hall of Compton and Steven Bradford of Gardena.
Wright became the third senator to resign in less than two years, though Republican Sens. Michael Rubio of Bakersfield and Bill Emmerson of Hemet left mid-term for higher-paying jobs in the private sector, and were not facing criminal charges.
Two other senators – Democrats Ron Calderon of Montebello and Leland Yee of San Francisco – are indicted in separate federal corruption cases and have been suspended from performing their legislative duties. They remain on the state payroll pending trial.
Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Yorba Linda, resigned in 2009 after an open microphone recorded him bragging about extramarital escapades.
After the jury found Wright guilty in January, Senate Democratic leaders suspended him with pay pending the judge’s affirmation of the verdict and sentencing. That came Friday, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg called for Wright to resign.
Wright’s case has brought new attention to the issue of a legislator’s legal residency. In Sacramento Monday, the head of the Greater Sacramento Urban League asked the local district attorney to explain why prosecutors never charged Assemblyman Richard Pan with an offense similar to Wright’s when Pan switched addresses to run for office in 2012.
The issue is likely to come up as Pan, a Democrat who lives in Natomas, campaigns for state Senate against fellow Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson of North Sacramento.
James Shelby – a Dickinson supporter who ran against Pan for Assembly in 2010 – sent a letter to Sacramento District Attorney Jan Scully Monday saying:
“We are most interested in understanding why one legislator was prosecuted for perjury and another is now allowed to seek higher office. We recognize that the district attorneys involved are in different counties. But too often in our nation’s history have we seen and experienced different legal standards allegedly based solely on geography.”
A Sacramento Bee investigation last year showed Pan spent little time at the Pocket-area condo he claimed as his legal domicile. He has since sold the property and now calls the Natomas home he shares with his wife and children his official address.
Pan was never charged with a crime. He said Monday that Shelby’s letter was a political attack.
“This is a letter from someone who supports Mr. Dickinson, who was my opponent in 2010 when I first ran for the Assembly,” Pan said.
“Frankly I think this letter is quite exploitative. The DA and the secretary of state have put this issue to bed.”
In an interview, Scully said the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office does not conduct its own investigations of alleged elections fraud. She said it relies on the California secretary of state to do an initial investigation, and forward findings to her office if necessary.
“If they determine there is sufficient evidence to believe a crime has occurred in Sacramento County, then they would refer that case to our office for review and consideration of filing criminal charges,” Scully said.
In the case of Pan, she said, the state elections authorities looked into it and never referred anything to her office.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office is unusual, Scully said, because it’s big enough to have its own unit to investigate political corruption. Most counties, she said, rely on the secretary of state to do the first level of inquiry on such issues.
She also said the laws governing political candidates’ residency requirements are confusing, one reason they may be applied differently around the state.
“This is an area of the law that should be clarified because as prosecutors we have to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty, and the vagueness of this law makes it very difficult to prosecute,” Scully said.
Don Bird, a Red Bluff retiree who has made a hobby of pestering politicians over their residency, said he plans to ask Sacramento’s incoming district attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, to take up a case against Pan.
“We’re going to chase this guy for as long as it takes,” said Bird, who stood outside the Capitol a few months ago calling out politicians he thinks have lied about where they live. “I’m not done fighting these people.”
Shelby, a former mayor of Citrus Heights, has endorsed Dickinson in his race against Pan, but said his letter to Scully had “no political motivation.”
“When I look at the two cases I see they’re similar. So why does one county prosecute and another one doesn’t?” Shelby said.
“One guy has been kicked out of office and one guy is allowed to run. I’m unclear.”
Dickinson said he played no role in Shelby’s decision to send the letter but said Wright’s conviction has raised new concern among some legislators that a common practice is gaining new scrutiny in selected cases.
“This is an issue I think is going to continue to make people wonder and scratch their heads,” Dickinson said.
“I suspect people will continue to have questions.”