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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Residents say former mayor filled out ballots

"He done the voting, but I signed the paper," Vernoil Littrell said of Gate City's ex-mayor Charles Dougherty. Background on the story

GATE CITY - Vernoil Littrell had lots of reasons for not being able to vote in person in last year's town election: For one thing, he was confined to his home, suffering from crippling arthritis and a bad heart.

He was also working a 13-hour shift at Food Lion on Election Day, according to his absentee ballot application - a document that authorities say was falsified. "I don't even go to Food Lion," Littrell said Tuesday. "I don't know why he put all that down."

The "he" Littrell was referring to is Gate City's former mayor Charles Dougherty, who was charged Monday with election fraud and making false statements on absentee ballot applications submitted on behalf of Littrell and 19 other town residents.

In a brief interview Tuesday, Dougherty said he is innocent of the 37 felony indictments returned against him by a Scott County grand jury.

According to Littrell, Dougherty came to his apartment complex last April looking for votes. Seeking re-election at the time, the mayor had a stack of blank absentee ballot applications in his hand.

Littrell said he signed the paperwork that Dougherty filled out. In handwriting that appears similar to that on other absentee ballot applications on file at the county courthouse, the following reasons are listed for Littrell not being able to vote in person: "crippling arthritis; confined to home; heart condition."

He does have arthritis, Littrell said. And he is confined to his home.

But, he said, "I ain't got no heart problem. I went to the doctor last week. My heart's all right."

The absentee ballot application was submitted to the Scott County registrar's office, which issued Littrell a mail-in ballot - even though the application seems to raise the obvious question of why someone with so many ailments could be working 13 hours at Food Lion.

After the ballot arrived in the mail, Littrell said, Dougherty came back to his apartment to help him vote. The way he tells it, the mayor did more than help. He filled out the ballot, voting for himself.

"He done the voting, but I signed the paper," Littrell said.

Botetourt County Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, who last year was appointed special prosector to oversee a state police investigation of the election, said other people have also said they were "voted" by Dougherty under similar circumstances.

Absentee voting abuses - which are also the subject of a special grand jury investigation into another election in neighboring Wise County - can allow dishonest candidates to amass a stealth electorate by focusing on voters who can easily be manipulated, critics of the process say.

Dougherty made the rounds in Littrell's apartment complex, where most of the residents are elderly or disabled, the 67-year-old Littrell said.

"All the way around," Littrell said, waving his arm to indicate the path taken by the allegedly vote-hungry politician that day.

On the other side of town, Dougherty was also seen knocking on the doors of Clinch View Manor Apartments, a government-subsidized complex for the elderly, disabled and handicapped.

He found Maxie Overbey in the laundry room.

"He hunted me down," Overbey said. "Or he looked 'til he found me, anyway."

Like Littrell, Overbey said she signed a blank absentee ballot application that Dougherty filled out. And like Littrell, her reason for not being able to vote was crippling arthritis.

While she does have a touch of arthritis, Overbey said it never prevented her from driving to the polls to vote in other elections.

Voting by absentee ballot would save her a trip to the polls, Overbey said she was assured by Dougherty. It was only after a state police investigator came knocking on her door that she took a close look at the absentee ballot application.

"Oh, Lord. I hate that I did that," she said. "I got took in by it."

A strong showing of absentee votes helped Dougherty squeak out a two-vote victory on May 4, 2004. But his re-election was later invalidated when his opponent, Mark Jenkins, challenged the results in court. Jenkins was later appointed mayor by a new town council named by a three-judge panel that heard the case.

Now, nearly a year later, the botched town election has gone from being the subject of a lawsuit to an ongoing criminal investigation.

After hearing from a state police investigator Monday, the grand jury charged Dougherty with 18 counts of violating absentee voting procedures, 17 counts of making false statements on ballot applications, and two counts of conspiracy.

In a brief telephone interview, Dougherty said he is innocent.

"It was elderly people, mostly, that I voted," he said. "They were the ones that signed the affidavits saying they couldn't go to the polls.

A short time after proclaiming his innocence, Dougherty turned himself over to authorities and was allowed to remain free on a personal recognizance bond. He is scheduled to be arraigned Aug. 15.

While the charges are pending, Dougherty also will keep his job as a correctional officer at the Southwest Virginia Regional Jail in Duffield. He is presumed innocent of the nonviolent charges, said Maj. Matthew Pilkenton of the regional jail.

In an earlier interview, Scott County registrar Willie Mae Kilgore said it is the voter's responsibility to give an honest answer when requesting permission to vote by absentee ballot. Absentee voting is allowed in Virginia only under certain circumstances, such as a voter being out of town on Election Day or unable to make it to the polls because of illness or disability. Making a false statement on an absentee ballot application is a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison.

But Branscom has said he is not comfortable bringing charges against people who were taken advantage of. To date, Dougherty is the only person charged in the investigation.

Ronald Kindle, who lost a bid for town council in the same election, said Tuesday that he believes the registrar's office should have known that something was amiss.

He and other town residents questioned whether powerful political connections will prevent the full story from ever being told in a courtroom.

Willie Mae Kilgore is the mother of twin sons, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, and GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore. Her husband is the longtime chairman of the Scott County Republican Party, and a third son heads the county economic development authority.

While the registrar's politics have been questioned in lawsuits, Branscom said the criminal investigation has produced no evidence to implicate the office - at least not so far.

"I never say never," the prosecutor said. "But certainly at this point I have no intention of going forward in that direction."

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