News: CJ Exclusives

ABC Commissioner Fails to Disclose Related Business Interest

A member of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission failed to disclose his interests in a fuel ethanol plant when he filed his 2003 Statement of Economic Interest with the State Board of Ethics on Feb. 25.

A Feb. 18 Carolina Journal Online story reported that the commissioner, Thomas “Ricky” Wright, Jr., a Wake Forest businessman, apparently violated the state Board of Ethics conflict-of-interest code by pursuing plans to build an ethanol plant in eastern North Carolina. The story also pointed out that Wright failed to file his 2002 statement of economic interest. Wright admitted his pursuit of an ethanol plant in a story that appeared Feb. 20 in The Wake Weekl y of Wake Forest.

In addition to regulating alcoholic beverages, the 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.

Guidelines issued by the ethics board say public officials 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.

Wright is a defendant in a lawsuit filed Feb. 10 by Raleigh businessman William Horton. Horton alleged that Wright and other defendants threatened to interfere in the permitting process for his Beaufort County ethanol project 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 also plan to build a fuel plant. Sam Lee, CEO of the North Carolina Grain Grower’s Cooperative, a group affiliated with Wright’s investors, told CJ that 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 in 1996. He was reappointed by Gov. Mike Easley.

Wright has tangled with the ethics board before. In December 1997, Hunt’s chief of staff, Franklin Freeman, requested that the ethics board investigate Wright. In May 1998 the board 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.

Freeman, now Easley’s senior assistant for governmental affairs, did not return phone calls regarding the Wright situation.

Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.