Former Lincoln commissioner sentenced to 21 months
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former Lincoln County commissioner who admitted he lied to an FBI agent about his role in an election fraud scheme will spend the next 21 months in federal prison.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston handed down Thomas Ramey Jr.'s sentence Thursday afternoon in a courtroom packed with Ramey supporters and Lincoln County residents.
Ramey pleaded guilty in August to a single charge of making a false statement to an FBI agent. He is the third, and final, of those charged in the Lincoln County election fraud scheme.
Ramey, 32, hung his head as Johnston said he would serve prison time and two years on supervised release. Stipulations of his plea agreement required him to resign his seat, which he did in July, and bars him from holding public office or being involved in any campaign for public office for ten years.
Onlookers sat elbow to elbow and a gasp and mumbling could be heard as the judge spoke.
Johnston told Ramey his sentence was to be a message to Lincoln County and other counties where voter fraud may be a problem.
"Election fraud in Lincoln County and in southern West Virginia must stop," Johnston said.
The judge said that if future cases involving election fraud were brought before him, he would impose longer sentences.
Ramey's sentence is the harshest of the three.
Former Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman, 58, was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison, along with three years probation. Bowman admitted to falsifying more than 100 absentee ballot applications for voters who did not have any legal basis to vote absentee.
Former County Clerk Donald Whitten, 62, was sentenced to one year and six months in prison and three years probation after pleading guilty to making a false statement.
Gregory Campbell, Ramey's attorney, said 21 months in prison "is a long time." He had guessed Ramey would receive no more than 18 months.
Ramey, who would not comment after the hearing, apologized in court to his family, friends and Lincoln County residents.
He said he got into politics because he loved Lincoln County and was tired of the negative connotations he heard about the area while growing up. He wanted to make a difference, he said.
Ramey maintained he did not know it was illegal to cast absentee ballots without a legal reason. But when he was informed it was illegal to do so he instructed a clerk, who has not been charged, to alter the forms that already had been submitted.
"I panicked," Ramey told the court after learning his actions were illegal. "When I was asked about it I was too scared to admit it."
Ramey said he never agreed to be a part of a conspiracy with Bowman and Whitten and never agreed to do anything illegal.
Johnston scolded Ramey for his actions. He said politics needed young, fresh faces with fresh ideas.
"You were an idealistic young man trying to make a difference in issues in your community. That's a good thing," Johnston said. "And yet your idealism yielded to corruption at some point."
He said there were no excuses for his actions.
The judge pointed out that Ramey served on the Board of Canvassers, the body that certifies the county's elections.
Johnston told Ramey he "should have known better" about absentee ballots and that if he didn't know, he should have taken the time to learn more about election law.
"Election law is complicated, but its not that complicated," Johnston said. "Its not rocket science."
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant sat in on the hearing Thursday. She said the sentences show the manipulation of elections will not be tolerated.
"From my point of view and from that of the Secretary of State's office, it's not just the sentence, it's not just the hearing, it's not just the jail time, for us it's making sure the process is followed correctly," Tennant said after the hearing.
"We haven't given up on Lincoln County. We are there to help them with the process. We've had people calling the office asking if the Secretary of State's office would be there for their election and we were there."
Lincoln County is on its third county clerk in about a year, she said.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the sentence marked the end of the investigation and that no other charges were expected.
"The citizen's vote is the very foundation of our democracy," Goodwin said. "When that vote is bought or sold or obtained by fraud, democracy itself is in peril.
"Essentially Bowman, Whitten and Ramey stuffed the ballot box by illegally abusing the absentee ballot process, a process that is designed for people who really need it like our service members and our elderly. This kind of hijacking of the democratic process will not be tolerated.
"I want to send a very clear message you cannot steal elections in southern West Virginia and if you try you will go to jail."
Ramey will be incarcerated at a federal prison in Morgantown.