News: CJ Exclusives

Horton Drops Litigation Without Explanation

FBI says it is ‘well aware of issues’

A Raleigh businessman this week withdrew a preliminary motion for a lawsuit he had filed against a group of businessmen in which he alleged they had interfered with his plans to build a fuel ethanol plant in Beaufort County.

William Horton, in his initial filing in Wake County Superior Court on Feb. 10, said his complaint involved “a complex and intricate conspiracy involving extortion, corruption and racketeering by public and private individuals reaching the highest levels of state government.” Horton’s lawyer, Scott Wilkinson, would not say why he withdrew the complaint. “There is a definite reason why he did that. We just can’t say why,” Wilkinson said.

Horton also refused to say why he dropped the litigation, but he said he still stands behind all the allegations outlined in his initial court filing as well as the information previously reported by Carolina Journal. He said he may refile the lawsuit.

Sources close to the case told CJ that Horton may have dropped the suit if he believed that federal law-enforcement officials were looking into the matter.

Chris Swecker, FBI special agent in charge for North Carolina, said, “We have a policy of not confirming or denying any investigation that may or may not be pending, but we are well aware of issues that have been raised surrounding the administration of the Golden LEAF Fund.”

One of the key figures in Horton’s allegations is Wake Forest businessman Thomas “Ricky” Wright. As explained in previous CJ stories, Wright is leading a group of investors that initially tried to partner with Horton but then tried to buy his project. After Horton refused Wright’s offer Dec. 24, 2002, Horton claimed that Wright and others threatened to put him out of business.

Wright is also one of three members of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. The commission is responsible for permitting fuel ethanol facilities, and any involvement in the Beaufort County project by Wright could pose a conflict of interest.

As an appointee of Gov. Mike Easley to a regulatory board, Wright is required to annually file a statement of economic interest with the state Board of Ethics. According to board records, Wright did not file a 2002 statement. He filed a 2003 statement Feb. 25 after he acknowledged involvement in an ethanol project to CJ and the Wake Weekly of Wake Forest. In the statement to the ethics board, Wright failed to acknowledge any involvement with an ethanol project.

In a story March 6 the Wake Weekly reported that state Rep. Russell Capps of Raleigh discussed the Wright conflict-of-interest situation with Franklin Freeman, a member of Easley’s staff. Freeman told Capps that an ethics investigation of Wright is “under consideration,” the Wake Weekly reported. Freeman did not return phone calls from CJ.

In 1997 Freeman, as Gov. Jim Hunt’s chief of staff, asked the ethics board to investigate Wright’s commission vote on a situation involving bar owner Barry Green, a friend and business partner of Wright’s. The board eventually issued a letter of caution to Wright and reminded him “to inquire of business partners as to whether they may have any business dealings that may come before the commission.”

Carrington is associate publisher of Carolina Journal.