Saturday, September 24, 2005

Judge names prosecutor for vote-buying probe

A special prosecutor was named Friday to oversee an investigation into alleged vote buying and ballot theft in Appalachia, a small coal mining town still caught up in last year's bitterly contested town hall election.

Wise County Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea appointed Norton attorney Tim McAfee to direct a special grand jury. The panel was convened in August to hear allegations that votes were purchased for liquor, beer and cigarettes.

At least one resident has also told police her mail-in ballot was stolen from her mailbox and cast in her name, and others have complained about an aggressive campaign for absentee votes that took advantage of elderly and low-income residents.

With the grand jury scheduled to begin hearing testimony Oct. 3, tensions are running high in Appalachia.

County Sheriff Ronnie Oakes said he increased patrols in the town of 1,800 this week after some residents complained of harassment, apparently by political opponents. "They've complained that they are being followed or stalked or harassed," the sheriff said.

Rick Bowman, who has pushed for an investigation into voting irregularities since losing in the May 2004 town council election said someone recently slashed the tires of his car as it sat in his driveway.

"People around here are a little bit scared, because things are getting fairly heated," Bowman said.

McAfee was appointed to head the investigation after Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chad Dotson discovered he had a conflict of interest. Before he became county prosecutor, Dotson was paid by the town of Appalachia to prosecute misdemeanors and traffic offenses.

Dotson, who still performs those duties for the town, recently sought an opinion from the Virginia State Bar about whether he should remain involved in the investigation.

"Since I draw a paycheck, however small, from the town of Appalachia, the State Bar concluded that ethically I should pass it on to someone else," Dotson said.

Dotson said he hopes McAfee's appointment will not delay the special grand jury's work. Before stepping down from the case, he had anticipated that the jury would hear 20 to 30 witnesses in the two days that have been set aside during the first week of October.

The grand jury would then make a recommendation to McAfee about whether to seek criminal charges.

Although the panel is expected to hear about the May 2004 town council election, Dotson said it's possible other topics could come up. He declined to elaborate.

The ultimate scope of the investigation could depend on what the initial witnesses say. "What they tell us under oath, that could lead us in other directions," Dotson said.

Three residents of Inman Village, a government-subsidized housing complex in Appalachia, told The Roanoke Times that they were approached before the May 2004 elections 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 residents, 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.

Of the 585 people who participated in the election, 108 cast their votes by absentee ballot, according to the Wise County registrar's office. That's an absentee voting rate of 18 percent; the statewide average is around 5 percent.

While unusually large, the number of absentee votes was not enough to alter the outcome of an election in which Ben Cooper, Eddie Galloway and Andy "Owen" Sharrett claimed three council seats in a seven-candidate race. The new council then appointed Cooper mayor.

McAfee, a former Wise County commonwealth's attorney, could not be reached for comment.

With Friday's appointment, the McAfee family law firm is now involved in two high-profile election fraud cases in far Southwest Virginia. McAfee's father, Carl McAfee, is representing Charles Dougherty, the ex-mayor of Gate City who was indicted last month on 37 counts of election fraud.

Dougherty's trial has been scheduled to start Feb. 21.