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Sunday, February 20, 2005

Small-town election, big-time trouble

Southwest Virginia's voting scandal

GATE CITY - Tough as it was to lose by two votes, Mark Jenkins was ready to accept defeat graciously in the May election for mayor of this mountain gap town that calls itself a city.

Then Jenkins called to congratulate incumbent Mayor Charles Dougherty. His opponent commented that they both ran a clean campaign. "That made the hair stand up on the back of my neck," Jenkins said.

Neither the campaign nor the election was clean, he told himself that night.

Jenkins went on to file a lawsuit that invalidated the election and exposed what he says is a long-standing practice in Scott County: Some candidates aggressively recruit absentee voters, encouraging them to lie about their reasons for not being able to vote on Election Day.

Although not named in the lawsuit, a key figure in the controversy is Willie Mae Kilgore - the voter registrar of Scott County and the mother of Jerry Kilgore, the former attorney general who is running for governor.

To Jenkins, the numbers alone seemed suspicious. About one of every five votes in the Gate City mayor's race was cast by absentee ballot. Dougherty claimed 87 percent of the absentee votes to win the election 357-355.

After additional questions were raised in depositions taken in June, a three-judge panel threw out the results for mayor and town council. Dougherty lost the mayor's job he had held since 1998. A town council appointed by another panel of judges then named Jenkins as Gate City's new mayor.

What could have been a small-town controversy didn't stop there, though. A Roanoke-area prosecutor has since been appointed to pursue possible criminal charges stemming from the election.

Jenkins blames Willie Mae Kilgore's office for much of what went wrong May 4. "If the registrar's office had been run as a professional office that followed the guidelines, this never would have happened," he said.

A second lawsuit claims that Kilgore is an "active political partisan" who uses her office to benefit Republican candidates. That lawsuit is unrelated to Jenkins' case but also raises questions about absentee voting. The Kilgore family, critics say, runs the political machinery of Scott County.

The family patriarch, John Kilgore, is the long-time chairman of the county Republican party. They have three sons. John Kilgore Jr. heads the county economic development authority. Terry Kilgore is a member of the House of Delegates. And his twin brother, Jerry, was until recently the state attorney general - a distinction noted by the road sign that greets visitors at the town limits of Gate City, population 2,159.

The way Willie Mae Kilgore sees it, Jerry's current political ambitions are the reason for a smear campaign against her office and her family.

"I think it's because I have a son who is going to run for governor," she said. During a Feb. 9 interview in her office, Kilgore angrily produced a black binder filled with what she called biased news articles about the controversy.

"We've always run clean elections in this office," she said. "I've been here since 1979, and it's something that really hurts to think that you get accused of things you have not done."

Yet one of Kilgore's main critics, the mayor of Gate City, is a Republican. "But wrong is wrong," Jenkins said.

While grateful that his legal challenge undid the results of last year's election, Jenkins said he is still waiting to see where his calls for a broader inquiry will lead.

"It's a shame that we've got soldiers dying every day to ensure a free election in other countries, and we can't get anybody to do anything about it here in Southwest Virginia," he said.

"It's being treated like this is just a small-town election and it's not that important. But it's very important to a free society."

Ambushed by democracy

Roger and Patricia Chapman had just stepped out of the Dollar General store in Gate City one afternoon last April when they were ambushed by democracy.

Click for a copy of the ballot

Jack Anderson, who was running for re-election to town council, approached the Chapmans. Anderson wanted their support, and he wanted it that very day by absentee ballot, Roger Chapman said in a deposition taken last summer.

The disabled factory worker testified that Anderson took them to meet Charles Dougherty, who was running to keep his job as mayor. He said the two men then came up with idea that the Chapmans would be out of town on Election Day the following month, taking their son to a doctor's appointment in Charlottesville.

Asked during the deposition if that was true, Roger Chapman said it was not.

"I've never been to Charlottesville in my life," he said.

In fact, he said, he never wanted to vote that day.

Yet Chapman and his wife agreed to go to the registrar's office, where Anderson informed Willie Mae Kilgore of their plan to be out of town. After Kilgore filled out two absentee voter applications, Chapman and his wife signed the forms and were given ballots.

With Anderson standing over them, the Chapmans said, they voted for the slate the candidate told them to vote for.

"Jack showed him [Roger], pointed to each one, which one he wanted him to vote for," Patricia Chapman testified. "It was Mr. Dougherty and him [Anderson] and I'm not sure. I think the Horton man. I'm not sure. It started with an H. And then a Williams man."

Kilgore watched the whole process, Roger Chapman testified. He recalled that she then told him: "Mr. Chapman, fold it [the ballot] up twice, put it in this envelope, seal it and be on your way. You have nothing to worry about."

'Prey on unfortunate people'

The Chapmans were among eight people who gave depositions in June. Following a day of testimony, lawyers on both sides agreed that at least 10 unqualified voters were allowed to vote.

A Sept. 9 order voiding the elections does not specifically mention the Chapmans. The unqualified voters in question were allowed to vote in person on Election Day despite questions about their town residency, said Henry Keuling-Stout, a Big Stone Gap attorney who represented Dougherty. That mistake was made by poll workers, not the registrar's office, he said.

In a letter to the three judges, Keuling-Stout said the deposition testimony was biased, and "the allegations of illegal election activity are equivocal at best." Yet both sides agreed the election should be invalidated.

Gerald Gray, a Dickenson County lawyer who represented Jenkins, said he believed the case was settled because he was prepared to present more testimony about absentee voting abuses.

It has long been the practice in Scott County for some candidates to score absentee ballots from people whose vote they can literally command, Jenkins said. The effort can take politicians to nursing homes, low-income neighborhoods, even the county jail.

"My opinion is that they prey on unfortunate people," said Jenkins.

With regular voters, "once they close that curtain, you're not guaranteed anything," Jenkins said. But with absentee voters, "If you can stand there and check it and watch it, you know what they're doing."

For Roger Chapman, what happened last year soured him on the democratic process.

It was the first time he ever voted, the 53-year-old said. And it will probably be the last.

"I didn't even vote for president," Chapman said earlier this month in an interview at his home. "You can't trust anybody no more."

Working the absentee vote

When 20 percent of the turnout didn't turn out - but voted by absentee ballot instead - some people began to wonder just what was going on May 4 in far Southwest Virginia.

"Gate City must have been a dead town that day," Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom said. "Everybody must have been out of town."

A random sample of registrars in three small towns that had mayoral races last spring - Amherst, Bluefield and Waverly - found a combined absentee voting percentage of 2.6 percent.

In December, Branscom, a Republican, was appointed special prosecutor in the case by a Scott County judge. He asked for a state police investigation before deciding what, if any, charges to seek from a grand jury.

One potential charge is making a false statement on an absentee ballot application. According to testimony last summer by Debbie Kindle, the registrar's office was actually encouraging people to lie.

Kindle, the wife of an unsuccessful town council candidate, testified in her deposition that she didn't want to vote in person because vote-hungry candidates often blocked the door to the polling place, despite a law intended to keep them 40 feet away.

But that was not a valid reason to vote in absentia, Kindle was told when she called the registrar's office. Kilgore said she needed to say that she was going to be out of town, that she was having medical tests run or that she was working at least 12 hours on Election Day, according to Kindle.

"I said any one of those would be a lie and I'm not going to lie," Kindle testified. "She said: 'Well, honey, just say you're going to be out of town.'"

Asked about that claim, Kilgore denied that she told the woman to lie. All she did, Kilgore said, was read a list of reasons allowed by state law for voting absentee.

But, she added, "if you give me one of those reasons, I can't say you're lying to me. I have to accept your answer. If you lie to me then you perjure yourself."

In the Chapman case, for example, Kilgore said she filled out the forms but relied on the voters' signatures to attest to their truthfulness.

Kilgore said she didn't recall Anderson telling the Chapmans how to vote. Anderson declined to comment, except to broadly deny the allegations against him.

As for the courting of absentee voters, "any candidate can do that," Kilgore said. "It happens all the time."

She admitted that the number of absentee ballots - 158 out of 712 votes cast - was high for last spring's town election. "But they [the candidates] worked hard and I could see the reason they worked hard," she said. "They wanted to win."

Dougherty, who won 39 percent of his votes by absentee ballot, was one of those hard-working candidates.

"I've always worked absentee hard in every election," Dougherty said. "That's part of campaigning. When people say they're going to be out of town or in the hospital, I encourage them to go out and vote absentee."

But Dougherty denied crossing the line between campaigning and coercing.

He said he intends to solicit the absentee vote again next year, when he tries to reclaim the mayor's job.

Other candidates can do the same thing, he said. "Mark Jenkins got some absentee ballot applications" last spring, Dougherty said. "But he never went out there and worked them."

A 'place to loaf'

As the town council race heated up in Gate City in April, so did traffic in and out of the registrar's office. Perhaps unknown to many people, their movements were captured by surveillance cameras from the adjacent Department of Motor Vehicles office.

Gerald Gray, the lawyer who represented Jenkins, obtained the tapes by subpoena. They show Anderson and Dougherty spending a lot of time in the parking lot outside the registrar's office.

"They could almost claim residency at that office," Jenkins said.

One of the tapes shows Dougherty, who works nights as a sheriff's deputy in the county jail, escorting an inmate into the registrar's office to vote by absentee ballot.

Dougherty said the inmate was not a convicted felon and had received permission to vote. "I asked him to vote for me, heck," the former mayor said. "But I didn't tell him."

Gray, however, finds it hard to believe that an inmate would not feel pressured to follow the wishes of the law enforcement officer who was controlling his every movement.

"It may not be illegal," the lawyer said of Dougherty's action, "but it certainly smacks of impropriety."

Gray has notified the special prosecutor of the tapes, which he said include other suspicious activities.

But what's so bad about hanging out at the registrar's office, some might ask.

"It's just someplace to loaf," Dougherty said last week. "I've been knowing Willie and them for a long time. I was just out there today."

Is it a conspiracy?

In the fall of 2003, Mary Lane made several trips to the registrar's office.

Lane is the wife of Allen Lane, who was running for sheriff as a Democrat in what proved to be an unsuccessful attempt to unseat longtime Republican incumbent Jerry Broadwater.

Lane asked for a list of absentee voter applications, according to a lawsuit she later filed in Roanoke Circuit Court.

"Ms. Lane was concerned about absentee voting, because she believed that Ms. Kilgore and Charles S. Dougherty Jr., an employee of the incumbent sheriff, and others working with them in the Republican party of Scott County were likely to violate election laws, particularly in absentee voting, to assist Republican candidates," the lawsuit claimed.

Not only was Lane refused data that should have been released, her lawsuit claimed, but soon afterward she received a letter from Kilgore. The letter informed Lane that she would not be allowed to vote in the upcoming election because she was a convicted felon.

That was both false and libelous, Lane claimed in her lawsuit.

Kilgore declined to comment on the legal action. But she noted that it was quietly filed last year nearly 200 miles away with instructions that it not be served on her. Tammy Belinsky, a Floyd County attorney who represents Lane, said that was for strategic reasons. Belinsky declined to elaborate.

Or a political vendetta?

While still unproven, Lane's lawsuit makes public what many people will only whisper in Scott County: that one prominent family has a stronghold on a local political scene long dominated by Republicans.

"It's just a fact that no one has ever said 'no' to the Kilgores," said county supervisor Paul Fields. "They have been in control for so long."

Democrats knocked a chink out of the Republican armor in 2003, when their party took control of the board of supervisors. Earlier last year, the board cut funding for a position in the registrar's office. The position was held by Betty Pendleton - Willie Mae Kilgore's sister.

In an interview with the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News, Terry Kilgore accused the board of having a political vendetta against his family.

Fields disputed that charge. He said Scott County did not need three people working in the registrar's office. Larger counties get by with two, he said.

Scott County used to have just two - the Kilgore sisters - until a state law passed in the 1980s prohibited the registrar from employing a relative as assistant registrar. Willie Mae Kilgore then made her sister a clerk-typist and hired a third person as assistant registrar, Fields said.

"There's nobody any more political across the state than the Kilgores. I know that and everybody else knows that," Fields said in dismissing the claim that the board was playing politics. "So that dog won't hunt."

But politics, undoubtedly, has stirred up this normally peaceful town.

"I don't know if elections in Gate City will ever be the same again," said Keuling-Stout. "There's been so much rancor and hanker over this, I'm not sure if people will ever want to go back to the polls."

More stories

Testimony appears to show violations of election law

Controversy likely won't affect Jerry Kilgore's campaign

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