Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Ex-official enters plea of not guilty

Former Gate City Mayor Charles Dougherty was arraigned Monday in Scott County.

Charles Dougherty pleaded not guilty Monday to 37 charges of election fraud in an absentee voting scam that tainted last year's campaign for mayor of Gate City.

And on Tuesday, a prosecutor in neighboring Wise County announced that a special grand jury convened to investigate allegations of vote-buying in Appalachia will begin its work Oct. 3.

Both cases involve unusually large numbers of absentee ballots cast in the municipal elections of small towns in far Southwest Virginia.

Dougherty, who served as Gate City mayor from 1998 to 2004, was arraigned Monday in Scott County Circuit Court. He entered not guilty pleas to 18 charges of aiding and abetting in violating the absentee voting process, 17 charges of making a false statement on an absentee ballot application, and two charges of conspiracy.

Authorities say Dougherty targeted elderly and unsophisticated voters, pressuring them to give false reasons for voting absentee and sometimes filling out their ballots himself.

In an interview one day after he was indicted Aug. 1, Dougherty said he was innocent.

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

Dougherty is scheduled to be back in court Aug. 29, at which point a trial date may be set.

After amassing a large number of absentee ballots - 138 of 158 cast - before the May 4, 2004, election, Dougherty squeaked out a two-vote victory over Mark Jenkins. But the mayor's re-election was later voided when Jenkins challenged the results in court.

A three-judge panel threw out the election results and appointed a new town council, which in turn named Jenkins mayor.

Jenkins has said he believes the election improprieties were allowed by the Scott County registrar's office, which is headed by Willie Mae Kilgore, mother of gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore.

However, special prosecutor Joel Branscom has said that he has seen no evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the registrar's office.

In a news release issued Tuesday, Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chad Dotson said a special grand jury will be convened Oct. 3 to look into "irregularities surrounding last year's elections in the town of Appalachia."

Some residents of a low-income housing complex have said they were approached by a supporter of a town council candidate and offered beer, cigarettes and even pork skins in exchange for their votes.

Dotson has confirmed that the complaints include allegations of vote buying and, in at least one case, the theft of an absentee ballot from a voter's mailbox. The ballot was filled out in the name of Christina McKinney, who sparked a state police investigation when she insisted on Election Day that she had never cast the vote.