Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Scott County absentee records at issue -- again

When a Gate City attorney first sought copies of absentee ballot applications from the registrar's office in September, she was told the staff was too busy to provide the records.

When it comes to absentee voting in Scott County, there's no absence of controversy.

The latest dispute over the issue -- at least the third in the past two years -- involves access to records kept by the voter registrar, Willie Mae Kilgore.

Last week, the secretary of the State Board of Elections said she saw no reason why Kilgore's office should not have promptly provided records sought by Sherry Lee Wilson.

Wilson had accused the registrar of stonewalling her requests for information on who has been approved to vote by absentee ballot in next week's election and the reason they stated for not being able to make it to the polls.

Wilson eventually obtained the information, which by state law is public record.

But the Gate City attorney says her experience was part of a broader problem with absentee voting in Scott County, which has led to lawsuits, criminal charges and intervention by state officials.

In 2003, Kilgore refused to provide a list of absentee voters to Mary Lane, the wife of the Democratic candidate for sheriff, according to a lawsuit refiled Monday in Scott County Circuit Court.

The lawsuit portrayed Kilgore as a "strong political partisan" who "has openly showed favoritism for Republican candidates." Registrars are expected to remain politically neutral on the job.

In retaliation for seeking the records, Lane claims in the lawsuit, she was falsely accused by Kilgore of being a convicted felon and taken off the voting rolls.

Kilgore's attorney, Thomas Baker of Gate City, called it a "baseless, frivolous, politically motivated lawsuit, filed one week before Election Day and designed solely for political gain."

Baker said he plans to file a counter-claim alleging that Lane's lawsuit is "an abuse of the legal system" that has damaged Kilgore's reputation.

Although the registrar's office has been criticized for its role in at least three elections since 2003, there is no evidence to suggest any wrongdoing, Baker said.

"She's been there a long time. She knows what she's doing," he said. "They're just pointing fingers at her because she's the mother of Jerry Kilgore and Terry Kilgore."

The registrar has two sons on the ballot: Jerry Kilgore, the former attorney general who is running for governor, and his twin brother, Terry, who is seeking re-election to his seat in the House of Delegates.

Two years ago, Lane sought the voting records after hearing rumors that Charles Dougherty, who was then the mayor of Gate City and an employee of the incumbent sheriff, was working with the registrar's office to manipulate the absentee vote in the 2003 elections, according to the lawsuit.

The following year, Dougherty was re-elected mayor in a tight race that turned on the absentee vote. He has since been charged with 37 counts of election fraud.

Authorities say Dougherty encouraged elderly or unsophisticated voters to lie about their reasons for not being able to make it to the polls, then actually voted for himself when filling out their absentee ballots.

Considering what happened in the 2003 and 2004 elections, Wilson said she decided earlier this year to request the absentee voting records to monitor what is expected to be a close election.

When Wilson -- a former member of the local electoral board -- first sought copies of absentee ballot applications from the registrar's office in September, she was told the staff was too busy to provide the records, she wrote in a complaint to the Scott County Electoral Board.

The same thing happened again in October, Wilson wrote in a second letter -- a copy of which she sent to Jean Jensen, secretary of the State Board of Elections in Richmond.

"I am very concerned about this complaint on two points," Jensen wrote in an Oct. 16 letter to the Scott County electoral board. Not only was Wilson's first letter not addressed, she wrote, "this exact problem occurred in October 2003."

In a reference to Lane's case, Jensen wrote that "another Scott County registered voter struggled for at least three days to obtain this list that the registrar is required by law to provide. It required intervention by this office to resolve the matter."

After receiving Jensen's letter, the local electoral board met Oct. 20 to address Wilson's complaint. After spending about three hours in executive session, the board drafted a letter directing the registrar's office to deal with citizen requests "promptly and efficiently."

At the same time, the board implemented a policy under which requests for information from the office would be governed by the Freedom of Information Act, which gives the record keeper five days to comply.

But the act does not apply to certain records -- including absentee voter lists and ballot applications -- that the law clearly states should be open for inspection during regular business hours, Jensen wrote in a reply to the board.

"I hope this information makes absolutely clear my intent to ensure that the Scott County registrar fully complies" with the law, Jensen wrote. She added that she expects to receive a response in time to make a report to the State Board of Elections at its next meeting on Nov. 28.

"I don't understand why this has become an issue again," Jensen said last week.

As for Lane's lawsuit, the same allegations were first made in a suit filed last year in Roanoke. Gerald Gray, a Dickenson County attorney who represents Lane, said he had the suit filed, dropped and refiled Monday for strategic reasons.

In the past, Gray has represented other people critical of Willie Mae Kilgore. Her supporters say that shows his bias. Her opponents say it represents a larger problem.

"There is definitely a pattern of ignoring the law out of that office," Wilson said. "It's pretty clear that the attitude is: 'This is Scott County and we do what we want to do.' "