By Mark Gutglueck
Federal authorities appear to have broken new ground in the prosecution of Adelanto City Councilman Jermaine Wright on charges of political corruption, having successfully enjoined him, short of a trial and conviction, from functioning in his capacity as an elected official.
Wright was arrested Tuesday November 7 by FBI special agents after he was named in a criminal complaint filed on November 6 charging him with bribery and seeking to arrange to have a restaurant he owned destroyed in an arson fire so he could collect $300,000 in insurance money.
On November 13, Wright, 41, appeared in U.S. District Court in Riverside before Magistrate Judge Kenly Kiya Kato, whereupon Wright was released after the posting of a $100,000 bond. Wright’s release was not allowed to proceed, however, until Wright agreed to undergo a mental health evaluation and follow-up treatment and to desist in participating in official Adelanto municipal proceedings in his capacity as an elected official while the criminal proceedings against him have yet to wend their way to a full adjudication. The restrictions on Wright, the mental health evaluation, together with his being required to turn over to federal authorities 12 firearms known to be registered to him were imposed on him in the form of a court order by Kato.
While there is precedent for taking weapons from a criminal defendant and at least some basis for seeking a mental health evaluation of prisoners or defendants in the context of a criminal proceeding, forcing an elected official to unilaterally surrender the authority, rights and/or privileges of elected status or office or to resign from that office absent a conviction appears to be a foray into new legal territory.
In scores of other previously known cases of political corruption alleged against office holders at the local, state and federal level, the government has stopped short of requesting that the defendant be removed from office or be deprived of the trappings of office, including the authority to vote on issues before the governmental entity the defendant was elected to represent or to engage in the public discussions of issues before that governmental entity.
In the case of Adam Clayton Powell, a Congressman representing Harlem in New York City, he remained in office and continued in his representation of his constituents, even as criminal proceedings against him progressed in the 1960s. Indeed, even after his conviction, Powell was reelected to Congress.
In a local case, the U.S. Justice Department through the U.S. Attorneys Office in Los Angeles carried out an investigation of Congressman Jerry Lewis beginning in 2006. That investigation into indications that Lewis and his family members received money or support from defense contractors in return for Lewis’ votes approving the government’s purchase of those contractors’ products and systems did not conclude until 2011, at which point no criminal charges were filed. Meanwhile, federal judges granted the U.S. Attorney’s Office several search warrants to obtain documents in Lewis’ Congressional office files. At no time, however, did the government attempt to disengage Lewis from his authority as an elected member of the House of Representatives. Lewis was able to use his authority and clout – as a member of Congress generally and especially as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and then as ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee – to parry legally and procedurally with prosecutors and investigators. And Lewis was able to use his position to tremendous benefit for himself, as he tapped into approaching $3 million available to him from his Congressional campaign funds to hire the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, including that firm’s crisis-manager Theodore B. Olson, a former solicitor general, to represent him. Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher then arranged to hire the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, Debra Wong Yang, who was heading up the investigation into Lewis.
In other less-acclaimed garden variety political corruption cases prosecuted by both federal and state prosecutors, there is no record of efforts to remove those being prosecuted from office or to undercut them by taking away their ability to function within the offices they held or hold prior to conviction, although routinely those convicted are stripped of their official elected positions upon conviction and in many cases where a plea arrangement is entered into without taking the cases to trial, a condition of the arrangement is that the accused resign from office.
In Wright’s case, the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Sean D. Peterson, as well as the FBI agents investigating the matter along with Joseph B. Widman, the chief of the Riverside Branch Office of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, appear to understand that Wright has presented them with an uncommon opportunity, both because of his lack of sophistication and what was referred to as his “outright stupidity.”
An illustration of this is that Wright, after interacting with an FBI informant, was put into contact with a first FBI undercover agent who offered Wright a $10,000 bribe to assist him with getting zoning clearance and assistance in neutralizing code enforcement activity with regard to a marijuana transportation business that undercover agent said he wanted to establish in Adelanto.
Wright later sought the informant’s assistance in locating an arsonist to burn down his restaurant, Fat Boyz Grill, in order to collect $300,000 in insurance money. The informant put Wright into touch with a second undercover FBI agent, who agreed to do the job for $1,500.
Thereafter, FBI agents closed in on Wright, and armed with evidence that Wright was taking bribes and soliciting an arsonist, obtained his confession and an agreement to cooperate with them in future operations against suspected bribe takers in Adelanto.
Wright, however, once again returned to the same FBI informant who had delivered him into the hands of the first two undercover FBI agents, seeking his assistance again in a cockamamie plot to have the informant beat him up so that Wright could claim he had suffered memory loss and could get out from under his commitment to cooperate with the FBI. Wright further solicited from the informant assistance in murdering the second undercover FBI operative.
Wright is implicated in the case at so many levels and beneath so many layers that he is virtually helpless before the onslaught of the charges that can be leveled against him by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He is being represented by overmatched Federal Deputy Public Defender Angela Viramontes.
Viramontes showed herself incapable of countering Peterson’s request that Kato order Wright to discontinue in his participatory role as a member of the Adelanto City Council.
The possibility now exists that in future public corruption cases, federal prosecutors will seek, using Wright’s case as a precedent, to have defendants precluded from acting in accordance with their authority as elected officials as a ploy to reduce the defendants’ leverage in defending themselves.
By Mark Gutglueck