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If Sen. Wright lives outside his district, it may not matter

L.A. County D.A.'s office confirms it is investigating, but the law does not require state officeholders to stay put after they are elected.

September 28, 2009|Jean Merl

Does Los Angeles-area state Sen. Roderick Wright live in the district he represents?

Where the veteran Democrat currently makes his home doesn't actually matter under state law, elections experts say. Where he lived while running for office is the key question.

The residency matter, and the issue of whether Wright correctly reported his address while seeking the 25th District seat he won last year, surfaced last week when the Los Angeles County district attorney's office confirmed it is investigating Wright.

Authorities on Sept. 16 searched two homes owned by Wright: a four-plex in Inglewood, which he listed as his residence when he registered to vote in 2007, and a single-family home near Baldwin Hills that is not in the 25th District. County tax records for 2008 list the latter home as "owner occupied."

David Demerjian, head of the D.A.'s public integrity division, said he could not discuss details of an ongoing investigation but did say that the office's cases involving residency matters "generally focus on whether false documents were filed."

Wright reported his address when he registered to vote on March 14, 2007, according to records on file with the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder's Office. Those documents are signed under penalty of perjury, a felony.

Wright declined to comment on the issue last week.

The case points up differences between the residency laws for local officeholders, such as city council members, county supervisors and school board members, and those applying to sit in the state Legislature. Virtually all local jurisdictions require that officials not only establish legal residency in a given district for a certain period leading up to their election but also remain in that district throughout the term.

The D.A. has been cracking down on local elected officials believed to be living surreptitiously outside their districts, prosecuting cases against a former mayor of Vernon and council members in Huntington Park and South Gate, for example.

For most city offices and other local positions, "you've got to remain a resident, but I am not aware of any like provision that applies to members of the Legislature," said Fredric Woocher, a widely recognized expert in elections law. "Nothing explicitly requires you to stay in the district once you are elected."

That would explain, for example, how state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) was able to move out of his district earlier this year to run in a special San Gabriel Valley congressional election without having to relinquish his seat in the Legislature.

The state Elections Code (Section 201) says that no one may hold state elective office "unless that person is a registered voter and otherwise qualified to vote for that office at the time that nomination papers are issued to the person or at the time of the person's appointment."

Article 4, Section 2(c) of the state Constitution says that a person "is ineligible to be a member of the Legislature unless the person . . . has been a resident of the legislative district for one year . . . immediately preceding the election."

Wright reported the Inglewood address as his residence more than a year before the contentious June 2008 primary election in which he bested then-Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally and two other Democrats. He easily won the seat in the heavily Democratic district in the November general election.

During the primary campaign, the residency of both Dymally and Wright became an issue, as both owned homes in the district as well as in more prestigious areas outside it. Dymally said in a May 29, 2008, Times article that his legal residence was a condo in Compton, within the district. Wright was quoted in the same article.

"It wasn't like I switched last week to be eligible," Wright told The Times about the Inglewood property. "I've owned the house for years. It's a kind of nonissue."

Legislators usually cannot be expelled from office -- with few exceptions, including a recall election -- unless their colleagues in the Assembly or Senate, respectively, decide by a two-thirds vote to throw them out.

Neither E. Dotson Wilson, chief clerk of the Assembly, nor Gregory Schmidt, secretary of the Senate, could name an instance in which a legislator in either house had been removed by colleagues over a matter of residency.

--

jean.merl@latimes.com

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