Last week was an unprecedented week in the California legislature. On Tuesday, landlord legislator Senator Rod Wright (D – Inglewood) was convicted of eight counts of perjury and voter fraud. On Wednesday, his colleagues in the senate made clear that they would take no action against Wright pending appeal of the criminal conviction, but would support his removal if the felony charges were upheld on appeal. On Thursday, Senator Wright introduced a bill (SB 929) to require that certain nonviolent felony convictions (like perjury and voter fraud) be converted to misdemeanors, a bill that could spare Wright from being ousted from the Senate.
His introduction of this bill two days after his conviction may constitute an ethics violation warranting his removal from the senate regardless of what happens with his underlying criminal convictions. State conflict of interest rules prohibit Senators from using public resources or the power of their office for their personal financial benefit. Introducing a bill to provide a foreseeable financial benefit to the author is prohibited. See Government Code section 87102.5(a); see also Gov. Code sec. 87100 (no public official shall “in any way attempt to use his official position to influence a governmental decision in which he knows or has reason to know he has a financial interest.”) Here, Wright knows that he will lose his job if these felony convictions stand. He used the power of his office to introduce legislation that would convert his felony conviction to a misdemeanor, a change that would allow him to stay in office and continue collecting his salary as a senator.
Senator Wright has likely committed political suicide with this bill. His decision to introduce the bill is particularly strange coming a day after his colleagues expressed willingness to allow Wright to stay in office despite his felony convictions.
For reasons inexplicable to most observers, even after a jury verdict convicting Wright on eight counts of perjury and voter fraud, his colleagues did not condemn him. They did not call for his resignation or start the process for removal. Instead, they announced that they would wait until resolution of his appeal before seeking his removal from office. This would extend Wright’s time in office for years, possibly allowing him to finish out his term. (He has already served since 2008 while under indictment for these charges.) One would think Wright would leave well enough alone, thank his colleagues, and keep a low profile. Instead, a day later he introduced a bill to downgrade his felony convictions to misdemeanors, one of the most blatant abuses of power in recent political history.
Senate leader Darrell Steinberg was obviously not amused. Asked to comment on Wright’s introduction of SB 929, Steinberg’s spokesperson made clear the bill would not make it to the floor and said simply, “wrong author, wrong time.”
Wright should be forced out of office before he does further damage to taxpayers, constituents and the Senate. It may well be his ethics violation in introducing this self-serving legislation that will drive him from office, rather than his eight felony convictions. Either way, people who care about fairness and decency in politics will celebrate his departure.
Dean Preston is the founder and Executive Director of Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters’ rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.tenantstogether.org.