News: CJ Exclusives

ABC Commissioner Apparently Violated Ethics Guidelines

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 Online reported that Horton was suing several other businessmen for allegedly interfering with his efforts to build an ethanol plant in Beaufort County. Horton told Carolina Journal that 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. Other members of the board are Chairwoman Ann Scott Fulton of Raleigh and Mike A. Joyner of Charlotte. Fulton’s position is full-time, while the other two commission members work part-time and receive no pay other than travel expenses.

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. “The commissioners are not involved in the day to day permitting process,” she said.

In May 1998, however, the state Board of Ethics issued a letter of caution to Wright for conflict of interest as an ABC commissioner when Wright debated and voted on a disciplinary case against one of his business partners. The partner, Barry Lee Green, was an owner of several area bars, including the Nineteenth Hole and Thee Dollhouse. Wright recused himself from the Nineteenth Hole case, citing his friendship with Green, but he did not dismiss himself from Thee Dollhouse case.

The ethics board said in its ruling that Wright had a conflict of interest in Thee Dollhouse case but that because he “did not have knowledge of the conflict at the time he performed his public duty, there was no intent to deceive or failure to protect the public interest.” The board told Wright that he has a duty to question all of his business partners and determine whether any have dealings that may become before the ABC Commission.

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.” The ethics board reviews the statements for actual or potential conflict of interest and notifies the proper officials. The statements are due between April 15 and May 15 of each year.

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.”

Carrington is Associate Publisher of Carolina Journal.