Thursday, September 29, 2005

Prosecutor seeks delay in vote case

The Appalachia vote-buying case isn't ready for a special grand jury, the prosecutor said.

A special prosecutor said Wednesday he needs more time to assess allegations that some votes were bought and others were stolen in last year's Appalachia town elections.

"On a scale of 1 to 100, we're like a 1½ in terms of where we need to be," Tim McAfee said of an investigation that is already more than a year old.

Last week, the Norton attorney was appointed by Wise County Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea to oversee a special grand jury that had been scheduled to begin hearing testimony Monday about complaints of election fraud in the May 4, 2004, race for three seats on Appalachia Town Council.

After meeting with investigators from the Virginia State Police and the county sheriff's office, McAfee decided to postpone the proceeding.

Based on what he's heard so far, McAfee said he might skip the special grand jury and go directly to a regular grand jury. That would enable him to seek indictments faster.

"If all of the allegations that have been made turn out to be credible and verifiable, there would be a violation of the law committed," McAfee said.

Earlier this year, three residents of a government-subsidized housing complex in Appalachia said they were approached before the election 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 has also told authorities that she agreed to vote, only to have her absentee ballot taken from her mailbox and cast by someone else.

McAfee -- appointed after Wise County Commonwealth's Attorney Chad Dotson discovered late in the process that he had a potential conflict of interest -- said his inclination to skip the special grand jury should not be seen as a criticism of the previous prosecutor.

When Dotson asked for a special grand jury investigation in July, he said the process would "allow us to dig a little deeper into what occurred, if anything."

With a special grand jury, multiple witnesses are subpoenaed to testify. Prosecutors often use the process to get reluctant witnesses to tell a grand jury what they might not say to a police officer. Special grand juries usually issue a report, which the prosecutor considers in deciding whether to seek charges.

A regular grand jury, by comparison, hears a quick summary of the evidence, usually from the investigating police officer, before deciding whether to issue an indictment.

Nearly all cases presented to regular grand juries result in indictments.

McAfee said the fact that he is considering taking the allegations to a regular grand jury does not mean he has already decided that indictments are imminent.

He said there are still some "big ifs" in the case.

Delaying the case for several months will allow for additional investigation, including taking fingerprints from absentee ballots that may have been stolen or tampered with, McAfee said.

The investigation seems to be focused mostly on absentee voting, the special prosecutor said.

Of 585 voters in the Appalachia elections, 105 cast their votes by absentee ballot, according to the Wise County voter registrar. That's an absentee voting rate of 18 percent; the statewide average is around 5 percent.

A similarly high percentage of absentee votes was cast last May in neighboring Scott County, where the former mayor of Gate City has been charged with 37 counts of election fraud.