Lincoln County officials admit to stuffing ballot box
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Lincoln County sheriff and county clerk will plead guilty to felonies following a ballot box stuffing scheme in the 2010 Democratic primary, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office announced Monday.
According to federal prosecutors, Sheriff Jerry Bowman admitted to falsifying more than 100 applications for absentee ballots for people who were not eligible to vote that way.
Democrat Bowman also arrived at voters' homes, told them who he was planning to vote for and, at last a half dozen times, marked the absentee ballots himself.
Bowman, 58, now faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The Democrat county clerk, Donald Whitten, will plead guilty to obstructing the investigation. He lied to an investigator when he said he never provided absentee ballots to a "certain person known to the United States Attorney . . . so that the Known Person could hand-deliver those absentee ballots to voters." The court document does not name the known person.
Whitten, 62, faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
As part of their pleas, both men have agreed to resign from office. They have both also promised never to seek or hold public office again. The plea agreements still need a judge's approval.
Federal prosecutors and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant began investigating the Lincoln County primary after an unusually high number of absentee ballots were cast in the Democratic Party primary.
Of those absentee ballots, about 90 percent favored one faction of Democratic candidates - including incumbent County Commissioner Thomas Ramey Jr. and Bowman, the then- and current sheriff who was then a candidate for clerk.
Goodwin said the effect of the absentee ballot scheme was that the Bowman faction "essentially stuffed the ballot box."
Ramey said in 2010 part of his campaign - and thus the high number of absentee ballots - was to encourage people to vote who couldn't get to the polls on Election Day because they had out-of-county work or because they were shut in.
After absentee votes were counted, Bowman defeated incumbent circuit clerk Charles Brumfield. Ramey won over Democratic challenger Phoebe Harless, who raised concerns over the high number of absentee ballots the week before the election.
In late summer 2010, a judge ordered county officials to declare Brumfield winner after more than 300 absentee ballots were tossed out. Bowman remained the sheriff, though he is term limited and cannot run again. Harless also challenged her loss after the recount but was disqualified because state law prohibits two commissioners from serving from the same district, The Associated Press reported in late summer 2010.
The case is the latest in the long history of southern West Virginia electoral corruption. Republicans were quick to jump on the charges as a sign of Democratic Party malfeasance, though both Goodwin and Tennant are Democrats.
Goodwin said the goal of the Lincoln efforts was to "hijack democracy" in southern West Virginia.
"It seems like deja vu all over again," Goodwin said, referring to work he's done before on southern West Virginia vote fraud.
He said because of previous cases, Bowman, Whitten and others who may still be under investigation had to go to greater lengths to try to swing the election.
"The good news is these criminals had to go to much greater lengths, and because they had to go to much greater lengths, their deeds became obvious," Goodwin said.
Indeed, several southern West Virginia officials sounded the alarm bells shortly before and immediately following the election.
The week before the May 11 primary, Sen. Ron Stollings, a Democrat then running for re-election in the 7th District that includes Lincoln, Boone and Wayne counties, said he had heard allegations of vote buying in the county and received information that absentee ballots were being hand-delivered to voters with a slate of candidates.
"It's unbelievable," Stollings said at the time. "I thought surely to God people understand now that they are being watched."
Tennant and Goodwin both made strong statements during a press conference announcing the pleas at the federal courthouse in downtown Charleston.
Tennant said the absentee ballot scheme was an attempt to "belittle" democracy.
"It is unfair that someone would chip away at our democracy," she said.
Ironically, Jerry Weaver, one of the candidates vying to replace Bowman in this year's election, pleaded guilty in 2005 to conspiring to buy votes. Despite that, he appears eligible under West Virginia law to run for office.
In May 2006, Weaver, a former county assessor, and former Circuit Clerk Greg Stowers were sentenced to one year and six months in prison, respectively, for their participation in a far-reaching vote-buying conspiracy that dated back to at least 1990.
Charles Vance, a Lincoln County commissioner who also raised questions about the 2010 primary at the time, told MetroNews Talkline on Monday that he already has opposed Weaver's re-entry into the courthouse scene. Weaver currently works as a real estate appraiser for Lincoln County.
"He basically, because I fought his hiring, had me removed as (county) Democratic chair," Vance said in the radio interview.
Vance also praised Tennant, who had faced criticism in the media and from partisans for failing to do enough to investigate the Lincoln County primary problems. Tennant's office has long maintained state law prohibits it from publicly discussing its investigations of election law violations. Goodwin gave Tennant "a great deal of credit."
In an exchange at the podium, Goodwin said, "We didn't always have as cooperative a relationship" with previous secretaries of states.
"In the previous administration," Tennant said.
"Right," Goodwin replied.
Vance told MetroNews he talked to Tennant shortly after the primary.
"She told me I'd done my job and she'd do hers - and she sure did," Vance said.