Tuesday, August 02, 2005
State charges former mayor with vote fraud
The indictments allege voters were persuaded to cast illegal votes by absentee ballot. Background on the disputed Gate City voting
GATE CITY - Charles Dougherty was charged Monday with running a campaign of fraud and deceit to win another term as mayor of Gate City.
Dougherty was indicted on 37 felony counts of voter fraud by a Scott County grand jury in the first charges to come from a lengthy investigation of a small-town election marred by allegations of corruption. The indictments allege voters, many of them elderly or prone to manipulation, were approached by the candidate and persuaded to cast illegal votes by absentee ballot.
Although Dougherty was re-elected mayor in May 2004 with a large number of absentee votes, he lost the job a few months later after his opponent, Mark Jenkins, challenged the results in court.
In a complaint filed in circuit court last year, Jenkins blamed not just Dougherty, but also the Scott County registrar's office for some of the voting irregularities.
The office is headed by Willie Mae Kilgore, mother of Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore.
Willie Mae Kilgore has been accused in a separate lawsuit of running the registrar's office in a partisan way, and her role in the 2004 Gate City elections was cited recently when she was asked to resign by the candidate running against her other twin son, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County.
Yet Joel Branscom, the Botetourt County commonwealth's attorney who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, said the investigation to date has found evidence to support charges only against Dougherty.
Branscom noted that the probe is ongoing.
"When you stir a pot like this, you never know what might come up," he said.
Monday's indictments marked the second legal action in less than a week involving election fraud in far Southwest Virginia. Last Wednesday, the commonwealth's attorney in neighboring Wise County called for a special grand jury to investigate allegations of vote-buying and ballot theft in May's elections for the town council of Appalachia.
Dougherty, a former Scott County sheriff's deputy who works at the county's regional jail, was charged with 18 counts of aiding and abetting in violating the absentee voting process, 17 counts of making a false statement on an absentee ballot application, and two counts of conspiracy.
Many of the charges involve people who gave false reasons for voting by absentee ballot. Absentee voting is allowed in Virginia under certain circumstances, such as for people out of town on Election Day or unable to vote in person because of heath reasons. It is a felony to make a false representation on an absentee ballot application.
Critics of the absentee voting process in Virginia say it is easy for an unscrupulous candidate to persuade a voter in private to obtain absentee ballots under false pretenses.
Some of the absentee ballot applications in the Gate City election contain similar reasons for a voter not being able to make it to the polls, such as the ailment of "crippling arthrism." [sic]
In Dougherty's case, authorities allege, the candidate took it a step further by also assisting the voters in casting their ballots.
Many people told a state police investigator that they "were voted" by the candidate. "It's a new phrase that I am still trying to find a definition for - 'He voted me,'" Branscom said.
In an interview in February, Willie Mae Kilgore said it is the voter's responsibility to be truthful on absentee ballot applications. As registrar, Kilgore said, she must take their word for why they cannot vote in person.
Rather than charge the voters, Branscom chose to hold the candidate accountable.
"When you subject yourself to 370 years in prison for trying to become the mayor of a small town, you're putting your liberties at risk when you do it," he said.
Each one of the 37 charges Dougherty faces carries a maximum punishment of 10 years in prison. He will be allowed to turn himself over to authorities and remain free on a personal recognizance bond, Branscom said.
Dougherty could not be reached for comment Monday.
In an interview earlier this year, he said he did nothing wrong in the weeks leading up to the town elections of May 4, 2004.
"I've always worked the absentee ballot hard in every election," he 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."
And as it turned out, the absent electorate proved crucial to Dougherty's two-vote re-election victory.
Of 158 absentee ballots cast in the mayor's race - about one of every five votes cast - Dougherty received 138. Jenkins was quick to challenge the results, and a three-judge panel invalidated the election in September. Jenkins was then named mayor by a new town council appointed by the judges.
Jenkins said Monday he was relieved to hear that criminal charges finally have come from the concerns he raised 15 months ago.
"The voting system is something that we should not be messing with," he said. "It's the foundation of freedom."
The mayor said he hopes the investigation will yield additional charges against others whom he believes have been involved in manipulating the absentee vote in Scott County. "This has been going on for years," he said.