Saturday, August 06, 2005

Mayor: Kilgore hindered probe

Gate City's mayor says Jerry Kilgore shouldn't have downplayed the election controversy.

The mayor of Jerry Kilgore's hometown says the gubernatorial candidate hindered an investigation last year when, as attorney general, he indicated that he saw no criminal wrongdoing in a disputed Gate City election.

Earlier this week, a grand jury charged the town's former mayor with 37 counts of election fraud.

Gate City Mayor Mark Jenkins, who lost the election but later got the mayor's job after challenging the results in court, said he believes Kilgore's comments to a local newspaper delayed a criminal investigation into the matter.

A July 2004 article in the Kingsport (Tenn.) Times-News quoted Kilgore as saying that while mistakes were made, "no one appears to have done anything deliberately."

Kilgore also said Gate City needed to "move on." The Republican has since stepped down as attorney general to run for governor.

Jenkins said it was inappropriate for the then-attorney general to publicly downplay a controversy that involved both his hometown and his mother, Willie Mae Kilgore, the longtime voter registrar of Scott County.

No one in the registrar's office has been charged with a crime.

But, Jenkins said, "I still maintain that the wrongdoings that have been brought to light by the indictments ... could not have gone on had the registrar been properly performing her job."

While a small-town scandal involving a candidate's mother is unlikely to become an issue in the governor's race, one political observer said, Jerry Kilgore's comment about the matter adds a different dimension to the controversy.

"Yes, it's a problem for the campaign," said Bob Denton, a Virginia Tech communications professor and political commentator. "But I think it relates more to the image and the character issue."

As attorney general, "it is a risky thing to comment about something in your hometown that involves your relatives," Denton said. "You are the chief cop in the commonwealth of Virginia, so to speak, and to make any statement, good or bad, is risky indeed."

A spokesman for the Kilgore campaign dismissed Jenkins' complaint.

"This is nothing more than a partisan attack," Tim Murtaugh said. "The mayor's bitterness is apparent, but still, it is generally considered out of bounds in polite company to attack a candidate's mother."

"They are desperate and downright rude."

Campaign officials for Kilgore's opponents, Democrat Tim Kaine and Independent Russ Potts, declined to comment on the issue Friday.

Denton said that while the candidates are unlikely to "talk about somebody's momma" at public appearances, the controversy might still affect the governor's race as a "gossipy, whispery kind of thing."

Murtaugh did not address the issue of whether Kilgore should have commented publicly on the case while attorney general.

"We're simply not going to dignify anything Mr. Jenkins has to say," he said. "He's clearly doing all of this for partisan reasons."

Yet Jenkins, like Kilgore, is a Republican. He said politics had nothing to do with his concerns about a May 4, 2004, election in which he lost the mayor's race by just two votes to incumbent Charles Dougherty.

Following a lengthy investigation, Dougherty was charged Monday with conspiracy, election fraud and making false statements on absentee ballots. Authorities say the former mayor preyed on elderly and unsophisticated voters, pressuring them to give false reasons for needing to vote absentee and sometimes filling out their ballots himself.

Jenkins said it should have been obvious to Kilgore and the registrar's office that something was amiss in an election in which one of every five votes was cast by absentee ballot. Eighty-seven percent of the absentee votes went to Dougherty.

Another warning sign, critics of the registrar say, was an absentee ballot application from a voter who said he was approached by Dougherty. The application, which was approved by the registrar's office, stated that Vernoil Littrell was unable to vote because he was confined to his home with crippling arthritis and a heart condition - while at the same time working a 13-hour shift at Food Lion on Election Day.

"I don't even go to Food Lion," Littrell said earlier this week, explaining that Dougherty had filled out the application for him to sign. "I don't know why he put all that down."

Dougherty, who has said he "works the absentee vote hard in every election," is a frequent visitor at the registrar's office.

"You would think that having your mother in the registrar's position would give you somewhat of a heads up on this type of activity," Jenkins said.

Although Jenkins believes Jerry Kilgore's comments slowed down the investigation, special prosecutor Joel Branscom said he did not think that was the case.

Questions about the election were raised almost immediately in a challenge filed by Jenkins, which led a three-judge panel to invalidate the results. But Branscom, the Botetourt County Commonwealth's attorney, was not appointed special prosecutor until November.

Scott County Commonwealth's Attorney Marcus McClung disqualified himself because of his close relationship with the county sheriff's office, which at the time employed Dougherty as a guard in the jail. Several other commonwealth's attorneys begged off when asked to take the case, Branscom said.

"Nobody down there would touch it, and I can understand why," Branscom said. "They needed to go a long way away" to find a special prosecutor.

Once Branscom took over, he said, it took months for a state police investigator to interview more than 150 people before the case was ready to go to a grand jury.

Dougherty is the only person to be charged so far, although the investigation is ongoing.

Branscom has said he has seen no evidence to support criminal charges against anyone in the registrar's office. However, he agreed that legitimate questions can be raised about how the office handled some aspects of the election.

"You can complain about those things, but raising it to a criminal level is another matter," he said.

In an earlier interview, Willie Mae Kilgore said she believes criticism of her office is coming from her son's political opponents. She said it is the voters' responsibility to make truthful statements about why they need to vote by absentee ballot.

"We've always run clean elections in this office," she said.

But according to Jenkins and other critics, the registrar's office has become an arm of a powerful Kilgore family that controls the political machinery of Scott County, a solidly Republican portion of far Southwest Virginia.

Willie Mae Kilgore's husband has been the chairman of the county Republican Party for years, Jenkins said. Her other twin son, Terry Kilgore, has represented Scott County as a delegate in the General Assembly for more than a decade. A third son, John, heads the county's economic development authority.

Jenkins said the family has come to wield too much power.

"I consider myself a Republican, but I honestly don't feel like we have a Republican Party here in Scott County," he said. "It's called the Kilgorican party."