Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ex-mayor sentenced in election fraud case

Ben Cooper was at the center of a vote-buying scheme in Appalachia that drew national media attention.


Past stories

WISE -- The man who personified both power and corruption in the tiny coal town of Appalachia was sentenced Wednesday to two years in jail for stealing an election.

"I hang my head in shame and disgrace," Ben Cooper said, sobbing repeatedly and wiping tears from his eyes as he read a prepared statement to Wise County Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea.

The former mayor and town manager of Appalachia, Cooper was once the most powerful man in town -- and the driving force behind a conspiracy to tighten his iron-fisted style of government by rigging the town elections of 2004.

Cooper, 64, admitted that his scheme to buy some votes with cigarettes and beer and to steal others by taking absentee ballots from the mail did more than just bring shame to his family, friends and the town of Appalachia.

It also ran counter to the principles he protected while serving in combat. "I have wronged the very things I fought for," said Cooper, a large and imposing man who in two years went from decorated Vietnam veteran to being called the Boss Hogg of Appalachia.

The judge said that while she was moved by Cooper's heartfelt contrition, she might well have given him more than two years in jail had special prosecutor Tim McAfee not recommended that term.

"This just stabs at the heart of our country," McElyea said in imposing concurrent sentences that amounted to 10 years in prison on 243 felony counts of election fraud. "You disenfranchised every person in Appalachia that had a right to vote in that election."

The balance of Cooper's 10-year sentence will be suspended after he serves a two-year jail sentence in the local jail and then completes another two years of electronically monitored home arrest. He was ordered to report to jail on March 2.

The sentencing of Cooper and four other defendants on Wednesday marked the end of a lengthy saga that brought national attention to Appalachia, an economically troubled town of about 1,800 that sits just a few miles from the Kentucky state line.

Because the first voter to go public with allegations of election fraud happened to be a housing project resident who said she was offered a pack of cigarettes and a bag of pork rinds in exchange for her vote, the town quickly became fodder for comedians such as Jay Leno.

But for all the jokes about pork rind politics, prosecutors stuck to what they considered the more serious aspect of the case: elected officials and their supporters who stole absentee ballots from the mail, voted repeatedly for themselves and forged the names of voters for whom the ballots were intended.

Last year, 14 people -- including a running mate of Cooper's, two town employees and two police officers -- were indicted on nearly 1,000 charges in what has been called Virginia's worst case of election fraud in the past half century.

Most of the other defendants received suspended sentences or house arrest for following Cooper's lead. "He's the man," special prosecutor Greg Stewart said of the ex-mayor. "But for him, we wouldn't be here."

A member of town council at the time of the 2004 elections, Cooper ran for re-election with his sights set on gaining a majority on council that would appoint him mayor. Another goal was to use his stolen mandate to oust a town manager so disliked by Cooper that the two men once came to blows during an argument in the municipal building.

Following the election, the new council not only appointed Cooper mayor but also acting town manager. It was only a year later, after the voter who first blew the whistle on election irregularities was interviewed by The Roanoke Times, that authorities began in earnest an investigation that eventually led to Cooper's ouster.

Defense witnesses described a different Ben Cooper from the power-hungry man who would tailgate his enemies through town, order police officers under his command to conduct illegal raids on the homes of people who crossed him or turn off the water service of a customer who dared to complain about the bill.

"His physical appearance may look threatening, but he's a big ol' teddy bear," said the Rev. Nick Brewer, who recounted how Cooper spent days building a wooden submarine in his church's playground for a Bible school class.

Cooper is also the primary caregiver for his ailing 89-year-old mother, with whom he lives.

"I know that with my age and health condition, any sentence of jail time would be a life sentence for me," Cooper told the judge just before he learned his fate. "But my greatest fear is that it will be a death sentence for my mother. ... I fear she will grieve herself to death."

In a town where politics can be as dirty as its Main Street, which is often coated in dust and grime from the coal trucks that constantly rumble through, the election fraud charges cleaned up at least part of the problem. Cooper and another indicted member of town council resigned, and other town employees involved in the scheme have lost their jobs.

But at least two Appalachia residents who attended Wednesday's sentencing would have liked to have seen more defendants leaving in handcuffs instead of through the same courthouse door they entered.

"It sends a message to the town of Appalachia that justice wasn't done the way it should have been," said Robert Anderson, the town's retired fire chief.

Rick Bowman, a candidate in the 2004 town election who was defeated by Cooper's slate of candidates, said he was "appalled" that convicted town employees and police officers were allowed to walk free.

"We have the greatest justice system in the world, but in this case it failed," Bowman said.

Although she ended up imposing most of the prosecution's recommended punishments, McElyea pointed out several times that she would have likely imposed more time had it been left up to her alone. "I want you to know how fortunate you are, sir," she told one defendant who received two months of house arrest.

The only two people jailed in the case were Cooper and Don Houston Estridge, a letter carrier accused of stealing mail and also the only defendant to face a jury. McElyea trimmed the jury's recommended sentence of 18 months to six months in an effort to address the disparities she saw.

Special prosecutor Tim McAfee said he suspected there might be some people who thought he was too lenient. But one factor that had to be considered, he said, was that most of the defendants pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

"It's hard for us to say, 'We appreciate all the help, but here's the knife and now we'll stab you in the back,' " he said.

"If there's criticism, throw it at me," he said. "But I'm happy with the way the cases were resolved."