Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Woman drops her lawsuit against Scott County registrar

Absentee voting has been a contentious issue in the county and the registrar had been accused of libel.

A Scott County woman has dropped her lawsuit claiming that registrar Willie Mae Kilgore libeled her during a dispute over voting records kept in the registrar's office.

Mary Lane had accused the registrar of refusing to provide her a list of absentee voters for the November 2003 election. Lane, whose husband was running for Scott County sheriff, had requested the information -- which according to state law is a public record -- about a month before the election.

Not only did Kilgore refuse to provide the list, the lawsuit claimed, but she also later sent Lane a letter informing her that she would not be allowed to vote in the election because she was a convicted felon. That was untrue, Lane said in accusing Kilgore of libel.

Last week, a Roanoke judge dismissed the lawsuit at Lane's request. Tammy Belinsky, a Floyd County attorney who filed the lawsuit, said Lane hopes to refile the case within six months.

Belinsky cited "strategic reasons" for the way the case was handled but declined to elaborate. The lawsuit was filed in Roanoke, nearly 200 miles from Scott County, and was never served on Willie Mae Kilgore.

Thomas Baker, a Gate City attorney who represents Kilgore, called it a "frivolous and political lawsuit."

Kilgore "will continue to run the registrar's office in a professional and respectable manner even in the face of these partisan, political attacks," Baker said Tuesday.

Absentee voting has been a contentious issue in Scott County. In August, former Gate City mayor Charles Dougherty was charged with 37 counts of election fraud.

Critics of the registrar's office, including Mayor Mark Jenkins, have said it was complicit in the alleged irregularities, which involved candidates' pressuring voters to lie about their reasons for voting by absentee ballot. Jenkins and others have said Kilgore uses her office to benefit political friends.

Lane, whose husband was running as a Democrat, claimed in her lawsuit that Kilgore "is an active political partisan, who openly shows favoritism for Republican candidates." The suit also listed the registrar's political connections: Her husband, John, heads the Scott County Republican party; one son, Terry, is a member of the House of Delegates; his twin, Jerry, is the former attorney general who is running for governor.

The issue of absentee voting was raised again last month. In a complaint to the Scott County electoral board, Sherry Lee Wilson said she requested copies of absentee voter applications from the registrar's office on Sept. 23 and was told by Kilgore that staffers did not have time to provide the records.

"Later that afternoon, I discovered that they had participated in a jewelry party at the office earlier in the morning," Wilson wrote in a letter to the three-member electoral board, which supervises the registrar. "Could this be the reason that they did not have time to do their job?"

Wilson said her understanding was that a woman who sold jewelry part time set up a display in the registrar's office during regular business hours.

According to Baker, there was no jewelry party. "Sherry Lee Wilson is a lifelong Democrat who is engaged in partisan, political attacks," he said.

Wilson, a Gate City attorney and former electoral board member, asked for a formal investigation of the registrar's office. She said Tuesday she has yet to receive an official response. Charles Sluss, secretary of the board, did not return a phone message left at his home Monday.

Wilson was given copies of absentee voter applications the next business day. Such information is frequently requested by candidates, who use it to mail campaign literature to voters who are unable to make it to the polls.

Absentee voting is allowed in Virginia only for certain reasons, such as health problems or being out of town on Election Day.

Given the recent history of absentee voting in Scott County, Wilson said she requested the information as a concerned citizen.

"It's going to be a close election," she said, "and across the state, we need to keep it on the up and up."

Wilson's inquiries revealed that 67 Scott County residents had been approved to vote by absentee ballot as of last week. That's a relatively small number, considering that 158 absentee ballots -- about 20 percent of the total turnout -- were cast last year just in the town of Gate City.