Thursday, July 28, 2005

Special grand jury will examine voting

A Wise County prosecutor has asked a circuit court judge to appoint the panel.

Allegations that candidates tried to buy their way onto Appalachia Town Council by offering liquor, beer and cigarettes to voters will soon be aired to a special grand jury.

Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chad Dotson asked a circuit court judge this week to appoint the panel. Dotson said Wednesday he hopes to use the grand jury to step up a state police investigation into last year's heated election for town council of Appalachia, a coal-mining town of 1,800 in the southwestern corner of Virginia.

Accusations made by voters to The Roanoke Times suggest an election fraught with fraud: a vote-buying campaign directed at the town's low-income neighborhoods, absentee ballots stolen from mailboxes, elderly citizens pressured to participate in a process they could no longer comprehend.

"From what I've heard, there are some things that cause me great concern," Dotson said.

"I take elections very seriously. ... We need to know that we're having fair elections and our people's voices are being heard."

Dotson stressed that he does not know whether the allegations are true. But once the special grand jury is convened, he will have the chance to subpoena witnesses and have them testify under oath.

"I see this as the next step in the investigative process," he said. "This will allow us to dig little deeper into what occurred, if anything."

Earlier this year, three residents of a government-subsidized housing complex in Appalachia said in newspaper interviews that they were approached by a supporter of a town council candidate and offered small payoffs - a fifth of liquor, a pack of cigarettes, even a bag of fried pork skins - in exchange for their votes.

One of the voters, Christina McKinney, has told authorities that she agreed to vote, only to have her absentee ballot taken from her mailbox and cast by someone else.

Authorities said McKinney's complaint launched an investigation that could take them beyond the elections of last May 4.

"We're not limited," Dotson said. "Anything that comes up in grand jury testimony, we can pursue that." He declined to say what other possible wrongdoing the panel might consider.

Although the vote-buying allegations have captured the most attention, the grand jury could also hear other allegations of election fraud.

In at least two cases, elderly residents were reportedly approached by someone looking for an easy vote.

Rita Jessee said she was surprised to learn that her 91-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, voted by absentee ballot. Her mother was alone in the house at the time, Jessee said, and apparently was approached by someone who persuaded her to vote - despite her deteriorating mental state.

"My mother could sign her name; she probably did sign her name," Jessee said. "But as for voting, no way. My mother didn't even know who was running. My mother didn't even know who the president was. There's just no way."

Jessee, who works as a cashier at a convenience store in Appalachia, said she remembers hearing some of her customers commenting last May about how they were given beer or cigarettes in exchange for their votes.

Although Jessee said she has suspicions about who was shopping for votes, she declined to name names. Dotson also declined to identify any potential suspects. He did say that allegations of wrongdoing were not widespread among the seven candidates who appeared on the ballot.

Dotson said that while Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea has not yet appointed the grand jury, he expects that to happen soon. The grand jury will hear testimony behind closed doors from "anyone and everyone who has any knowledge of these matters," the prosecutor said. Once the session is completed, the grand jury will have the power to issue a report to Dotson or return indictments if he requests them.

Of the 585 people who participated in last year's town elections, 108 cast their votes by absentee ballot. That's an absentee voting rate of 18 percent; the usual number is less than 5 percent.

The high number of absentee votes raised questions not just in Appalachia, but also in neighboring Scott County, where a similar situation unfolded in the elections for Gate City town council and mayor. After Mark Jenkins challenged an election for mayor that he lost by just two votes, a three-judge panel threw out the results based on errors made by poll workers.

Since then, Botetourt Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom has been appointed special prosecutor to oversee a state police investigation. Branscom has said the investigation is focused on absentee voting irregularities.

Jenkins and others have said that absentee voting is particularly vulnerable to fraud, because it allows an unscrupulous candidate to approach voters - often those who are easily manipulated - away from the polls and pressure them to vote a certain way.

"I'm just happy that this matter is being looked into," said Rick Bowman, an unsuccessful candidate for Appalachia Town Council.

"This thing has been dragging on for 14 months now, and I think people just want to see it resolved one way or another."