Bayou la Batre Mayor Stan Wright was convicted March 1 for conspiracy to defraud the United States and theft for his role in a 2007 land scheme in which he deeded a piece of property to his daughter, who then sold it back to the city to pay off a mortgage debt.
The $27,300 Wright was accused of stealing originated in a $15 million FEMA grant intended to fund long-term housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Months before the Bayou la Batre City Council approved the sale, Wright and his wife Robin had loaned their daughter Mary Cook $27,300 to pay for an equity line of credit she incurred from a previous divorce.
"This has to be the biggest coincidence in the history of the world," Assisstant U.S. Attorney George May told the jury during closing arguments. "Or this is a simple case of a crooked politician who figured out a way to funnel $27,000 into his daughter's pockets."
The evidence suggested Wright devised a scheme to sell two-tenths of an acre of property he owned to the city he governed, which needed at least a portion of it to meet state traffic regulations at the FEMA-funded Safe Harbor public housing development. While neighboring property owners were never asked to sell more than was necessary for right-of-way, Wright sold his entire parcel for a price prosecutors said was equal to $131,000 an acre.
Defense lawyer Authur Madden argued the sale was legal because it was approved by the City Council in a public meeting where Wright admitted his previous ownership and later abstained from the vote to purchase it. Madden said the decision to sell the entire parcel was based on an engineer's decision that what would be left behind would be an "uneconomic remnant."
"The defense would have you believe that a piece of property worth $131,000 an acre as a whole becomes worthless if you take away a portion of it," May said.
Regarding the defense's view the sale was legal because it was approved by the City Council, May said a City Council is not a court of law.
"If the mayor had asked the City Council for $27,000 to buy a kilo of cocaine, does that make it legal?" He asked.
Wright was also convicted of witness intimidation and witness tampering. The evidence showed when he discovered former Bayou la Batre Police Capt. Darryl Wilson was assisting in the federal investigation against him, Wright overstepped his authority to remove Wilson from lucrative federal task forces and demoted him to patrol duties.
Madden dismissed the charges as "small town police politics" in closing arguments, imploring the jury to refer to a letter from the DEA which accepted the mayor's removal of Wilson and suggested the agency's need for Wilson was complete.
In explaining explicit statements Wright made to various witnesses about employee loyalty, Madden suggested he was just worked up after being labeled a thief.
"Stan Wright is not a perfect man," he said. "When one looks back on their life there are many things they would do differently. But with this, there is no intent. Stan Wright did not intend to commit a crime."
Wright's conviction could have been more serious, if U.S. Judge Kristi Dubose had not dropped three counts of money laundering against him. In dismissing those charges, Dubose determined the prosecution was unable to show Wright's bank account had been "enhanced" by the theft.
State law does not allow convicted felons to hold elected office. Bayou la Batre City Councilwoman Ida Mae Coleman is mayor pro-tem, and the City Council is expected to appoint a permanent replacement.
Wright faces a total of 50 years under maximum sentencing guidelines, although Dubose sentenced his codefendant, Janey Galbraith, to just three months last year.
"We're very pleased with the jury's verdict," May said afterward. "The message is, when you have federal funds that come in for victims of disaster, that's how they have to be applied."
Wilson wished to thank the jury and said he felt vindicated by the verdict.
"The bottom line is justice has been served," he said.