A Los Angeles County grand jury on Thursday unsealed an eight-count felony indictment against state Sen. Roderick Wright (D- Inglewood), accusing him of filing a false declaration of candidacy, voter fraud and perjury beginning in 2007, when he changed his voter registration to run for the Legislature.
Wright listed as his residence a home in the district he wanted to represent, but county authorities allege that he did not live there as required by state law.
The indictment also alleges that Wright fraudulently voted in five elections in 2008 and 2009.
If convicted, he faces up to eight years and four months in state prison, the district attorney's office said.
Wright, 58, was arraigned Thursday morning before Superior Court Judge Patricia M. Schnegg. He pleaded not guilty and was released after posting $45,000 bail, an amount requested by Deputy Dist. Atty. Sandi Roth. Wright is due back in court Oct. 8.
Wright had no comment, but one of his attorneys, Winston Kevin McKesson, predicted that his client would be "fully exonerated." "We believe he fully complied with the law," McKesson said.
The indictment comes almost a year from the day in 2009 when authorities searched two residences owned by Wright, one a multi-family complex in Inglewood, in the 25th Senate District that he was elected to represent in 2008, and the other a house in Baldwin Hills, in the neighboring 26th District. Property records show he bought the Baldwin Hills home in 2000.
David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's public integrity division, said last year that his office had received a tip that Wright had not been living in the district despite having listed the Inglewood address as his home when changing his voter registration in March 2007. Voter registration affidavits and declarations of candidacy are signed under penalty of perjury.
Wright listed the Inglewood address as his residence on his voter registration form. On his declaration of candidacy, Wright did not list a home address, although in signing the document he asserted that he met all the requirements to run for the office, including residency.
McKesson said Wright followed the law, citing a state elections code section declaring a lawmaker's residence to be where he or she is registered to vote. Wright has owned the Inglewood fourplex since 1977, and in 2007, preparing to run for the Senate the following year, he lowered his stepmother's rent on a unit attached to it so he could live in one of her rooms, McKesson said.
Wright won the Senate seat in November 2008. His district runs from the coastal cities of the Palos Verdes Peninsula through the harbor area and part of Long Beach, as well as through Compton, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood and some portions of the city of Los Angeles and unincorporated areas.
The district attorney's office said a felony conviction would bar Wright from holding elective office for life. But it is unclear whether he would be forced to give up his seat.
With few exceptions, such as a recall election, legislators cannot be expelled from office except by a two-thirds vote of their colleagues in the Assembly or Senate. Neither E. Dotson Wilson, chief clerk of the Assembly, nor Gregory Schmidt, secretary of the Senate, could name an instance in which a member of either house had been removed by colleagues over a matter of residency.
Wright, who won the Senate post after a bitter primary battle with former Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally, has long been a fixture in area politics. He was a district administrator for Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) before being elected to the state Assembly in 1996, serving six years before term limits forced him out in 2002.
He ran unsuccessfully for the Los Angeles City Council the following year.
In the Senate, Wright has been part of a bloc of moderate, business-friendly Democrats that has frustrated attempts by more liberal lawmakers to impose stringent regulations on industry. He voted to waive environmental rules for a professional football stadium proposed for the City of Industry in 2009 and helped scuttle a measure last month that would have banned plastic grocery bags.
He is popular among his Senate colleagues, some of whom rallied around him Thursday.
"Rod Wright has been a strong voice in the civil rights community for over 30 years," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D- Sacramento). "And while all of us are expected to obey the laws, a criminal indictment on a merit of residency threatens to silence a voice that I will continue to listen to and respect."
Steinberg said Wright would retain his committee leadership positions and other Senate posts.
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she hopes her colleague will be vindicated but called the charges very serious.
"In democracy, it is sacrosanct for people to be able to elect a representative who represents them in their district," Romero said.
The Wright indictment marks the second time in less than two months that a local elected official has faced criminal charges over possible residency fraud.
On Aug. 4, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife were indicted on 24 felony counts when a criminal grand jury alleged they had committed perjury and voter fraud when they listed their home as being in Panorama City but actually lived outside Alarcon's 7th Council District.
Alarcon and his wife, Flora Montes de Oca, both pleaded not guilty.
Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento contributed to this report.