North Carolina state House speaker Thom Tillis has established quite a reputation as a prolific fundraiser. He’s been credited with providing the ammo needed for the GOP to take over the legislature. He’s tapping that skill to fuel his current campaign for the US Senate.
One particular contribution in 2012 to Tillis’ House campaign has ties to a North Carolina political scandal that broke in 2003 and ended in federal court in 2010. Documents on file with the North Carolina State Board of Elections indicate Jane Wright of Wake Forest donated $4,000 to the Tillis House campaign in October 2012. She is the wife of Thomas R. “Ricky” Wright, who made news in 2003:
A member of the state ABC Commission apparently violated the state Board of Ethics conflict-of-interest code by pursuing plans to build an ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina.
The commissioner, Thomas “Ricky” Wright, Jr., a Wake Forest businessman, is also a defendant in a related lawsuit filed last week by Raleigh businessman William Horton.
In addition to regulating alcoholic beverages, the ABC Commission also reviews plans and issues permits for fuel alcohol, or ethanol, plants. A state administrative code says any operator of a fuel plant must first obtain a permit from the commission.
Last week Carolina Journal reported that Horton was suing several other businessmen for allegedly interfering with his efforts to build an ethanol plant in Beaufort County. Horton said the defendants threatened to interfere in the permitting process and to put him out of business.
Wright, the owner of an electric motor shop and other business interests, is a leading partner of a group of investors who plan to build the fuel plant. Sam Lee, CEO of the North Carolina Grain Grower’s Cooperative, a group affiliated with Wright’s investors, said Wright’s group is planning to build the plant on the same Beaufort County site that is under option by Horton’s company, DFI Agri-Energy.
Having previously served on the Wake County ABC Board, Wright was first appointed to the state board by Gov. Jim Hunt. He was reappointed by Gov. Mike Easley. The commission is made up of three members who serve at the pleasure of the governor. […]
Fulton told CJ that she was unaware of Wright’s effort to build an ethanol plant and of a related lawsuit filed against him. She said she does not consider Wright’s involvement in the fuel plant a conflict of interest.
Guidelines issued by the ethics board say public officials also should avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. Like other officials, Wright is required to annually file a statement of economic interest and fully disclose “any potential conflict of interest or appearance of conflict.”
According to records at the ethics board, Wright failed to file a statement in 2002. Current statements from Fulton and Joyner were on file. When asked whether Wright should file a statement, Fulton said, “If it is true that he has not filed one, I will ask him to file it.”
Let’s fast forward to 2009, where The Wake Forest Gazette has details on some related federal court proceedings:
Monday afternoon James “Jimmy” Perry Jr., a Wake Forest businessman and one-time mayor, pleaded guilty to one count of a federal charge of conspiracy to commit bribery by giving money to a then-state employee to hurry environmental permits for an ethanol plant in Beaufort County.
Perry, 62, and his co-defendant, David Lee Brady, 76, stood before U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle in the Terry Sanford Federal Building in Raleigh, but the names most often heard during the 45-minute arraignment were Ricky Wright, owner of the Electric Motor Shop in Wake Forest and Rocky Mount, and Barry Green, a friend of Wright’s since boyhood who has owned Thee Doll House, which featured adult entertainment, and restaurants in Raleigh and the area.
[… Judge Boyle gleefully questioned Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis Duffy’s chronicle of the events leading to the charges against Perry and Brady and sprinkled the proceedings with commentary.
During his recital of the events, Duffy said there were unindicted co-conspirators which he did not name. The investigation is continuing, he said.
Duffy went back to 1993 to explain the events, saying that was the year Boyce Hudson was appointed by then-Gov. James Hunt to be a liaison between the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the General Assembly. “An interface with the policy and the political,” Boyle suggested.
That was also the year Hudson met Wright and Green and the three began sharing a business and a social relationship.
Fast-forward to 2002 when, Duffy said, a developer wanted to build an asphalt plant near Wake Forest. That person met with Wright and Green, who told him to go to Hudson. “The asphalt developer went to Hudson because he needed information” about the permits for his plants,” Duffy said.
At this point, Boyle was peppering Duffy with a number of questions about Green and Thee Doll House and other adult entertainment clubs “out on the highway.” “Why did they care about an asphalt plant if they had Thee Doll House?” “Is he (Wright) a partner of Green’s?” “Are those businesses (adult entertainment) legitimate or controlled by organized crime?” Boyle also questioned if Wright, who was then one of the three commissioners on the state ABC Board, had a conflict of interest in his actions.
The asphalt plant developer was later “summoned” to a meeting with Wright and Green at Ruby Tuesday, Duffy said, where they told him he owed them $11,500 for putting him in touch with Hudson. At that point or soon after, the developer gave the two men a check for $11,500, payable to Crowley’s Restaurant where Green was an owner. “That’s a lot of hamburgers,” Boyle said.
Later, Duffy said, the asphalt plant developer was out of pocket for $7,000, $3,000 for plane tickets for Hudson’s hunting trip to Uruguay and $4,000 in cash.
“Does it cost everyone $18,500 for an air quality permit?” Boyle asked. He asked if there was a rate schedule somewhere.
Another question was how much Barry Green was paid out of the $11,500 check. “Isn’t that extortion?” Yes, Duffy said, adding there is a five-year limit on prosecution for extortion.
Duffy then moved to 2004 when, he said, Perry was interested in building an ethanol plant but did not have a lot of equity so he turned to Green and Wright.
(Duffy jumped right over some other events in 2002 and perhaps earlier. At that time, Perry was reportedly offering to help William R. Horton, who had been trying for 20 years to build an ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina.
(In a February 2003 interview with Suzanne Rook, a staff writer for The Wake Weekly, Perry said he introduced Horton to Wright because he believed Wright, with his seat on the state ABC board and “well-established political connections,” could help Horton.
(In the article, Perry is quoted as saying Horton began acting “erratically” and decided in 2002 that Wright and Perry should purchase his interest in the ethanol project. Wright told Rook he learned that interest was worth between $250,000 and $300,000. Wright said he countered with an offer of $3 million and could not explain to Rook why he did so. Wright would have violated the state ethics code by purchasing or having an interest in an ethanol plant, but he told Rook he was only making inquiries and those do not constitute a conflict of interest.
(After Horton refused Wright’s offer, BB&T called in the loans on two of Horton’s properties. Horton filed suit in 2003, claiming “racketeering, extortion, corruption and conspiracy” reaching to the top of state government. That suit is in abeyance until any criminal matters are completed.
(Meanwhile in the fall of 2002 the Grain Growers’ Cooperative that had been set up to receive Golden Leaf grants had transferred its share of the ethanol plant to a new corporation, Ricky Wright & Associates. A year later Agri-Ethanol Products, known as AEP, was incorporated with David Lee Brady as the managing partner. The new company became the owner of the ethanol plant site near Aurora once owned by Horton.)
What Duffy said in court Monday was that Green and Wright invested very little in the plant. “They were doing it on the cheap,” Judge Boyle suggested.
Several times Duffy stressed that Brady, who had left his businesses with an $800,000 per year retirement income, “was a very successful businessman.” There were four principals in AEP, Duffy said – Perry, Grady, Wright and Green – but the profits were to be split three ways with Wright and Green sharing.
Duffy said Wright and Green met with Hudson to discuss the ethanol project in April of 2004.
Events began unraveling, Duffy said, when an unnamed person met with Brady and others in November of 2004. That person became suspicious about the ethanol project and went to the FBI. Duffy said potential investors were being told all the necessary permits had been obtained. On Monday, people familiar with the case and the federal courts said that FBI, SBI and IRS agents partly filled a bench behind the prosecutors.
The unnamed person and an undercover FBI agent began wearing wires and taping the principals in AEP. At one point, Hudson complained he had never been paid and an FBI agent gave him a bank check for $15,000.
The matter went before a grand jury in 2007, which indicted Perry and Brady on charges of aiding, abetting and conspiracy to commit bribery and extortion along with two counts of perjury. Both men were released on bond after an initial hearing before Boyle in October. Perry remains free on $25,000 bond. He had faced up to 45 years in prison if found guilty of all charges.
Wright inherited the family business from his father and has expanded it.
Perry was an employee at the Electric Motor Shop before he became mayor and a developer, building the Tyler Run subdivision, named after his daughter, and acting with others to develop The Market of Wake Forest shopping center. For several years in the late 1980s he was a partner in the Holding Farms Development Group where the major financial backer was Cliff Benson Sr., founder of Carolina Builders. The group planned a major mixed-use development but they lost their option on the 668 acres because they could not get loans.
Perry built at least one apartment complex in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and then became involved in a conspiracy to embezzle money from a Sumter, S.C., school district. The group, which included the district’s assistant superintendent for finance, looted more than $2 million over several years.
Prosecutors there said Perry lied in February of 1998 when he told investigators he had nothing to do with the scheme. On June 1 of 1999 Perry pleaded guilty to receiving stolen goods and conspiracy to commit embezzlement. His sentence was five years probation and restitution of the $100,000 he had received.
In 2010, John Locke’s Don Carrington reported on the federal sentencing of two of Wright’s business partners in the ethanol deal:
[…]“Corruption comes in all forms,” U.S. Attorney George Holding said to reporters after the sentencing hearing. “Over the course of the last eight years we have seen it in a variety of different forms and fashions and how it has crept into the culture of our government. The bottom line is that corruption in any form undermines the people’s confidence in government and their elected officials. It is something that we cannot tolerate and that we have to expend the resources in law enforcement to root it out at every turn.”
[…] When Carolina Journal asked about the status of Wright and Green, Holding said, “We investigated many different angles in this investigation we and believe that we have wrapped this investigation up.” […]