Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Gate City mayor's case will be limited

A judge ruled that the prosecution can present two cases out of 37 indictments.

GATE CITY -- Charles Dougherty had a scheme and a plan to win another term as mayor of Gate City, a prosecutor said Tuesday. But a jury will hear just part of the election fraud allegations at a trial scheduled for February.

At a pretrial hearing, Scott County Circuit Judge Birg Sergent ruled that the prosecution can present just two cases out of 37 indictments at the Feb. 21 trial.

The rest of the charges against Dougherty will be tried later.

Dougherty is accused of manipulating the absentee vote -- encouraging voters to lie about their reasons for not being able to vote in person and in some cases casting their mail-in votes for them -- in an election he won by just two votes.

Special prosecutor Joel Branscom had asked that one jury hear all the charges against Dougherty because they involve a common scheme and plan.

"The idea is to change the outcome of the election by getting as many people who don't qualify to vote as you can," Branscom said.

But Dougherty's lawyer said it would be unfair for him to face so many charges at once.

"My client is going to be prejudiced by it, because the jury is going to say, 'If you've got all those charges, he's got to be guilty of at least one of them,' " Carl McAfee said.

All but two of the 37 indictments against Dougherty accuse him of making false statements on absentee ballot applications and aiding and abetting in violating election laws during encounters with voters as he campaigned door to door.

Sergent said the Feb. 21 trial will be limited to the remaining two charges, which he said involve claims of "some sort of remuneration, money or otherwise," in exchange for votes.

Branscom has declined to comment in detail about the charges.

Dougherty, who has remained free on bond following his Aug. 1 indictment, did not attend Tuesday's hearing.

In an earlier interview, he said he had done nothing wrong.

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

Absentee voting is allowed in Virginia only for certain reasons, such as being out of town on Election Day for business or personal reasons or not being able to make it to the polls because of illness or physical disability.

Although he was re-elected mayor in May 2004 by just two votes, Dougherty received 138 of the 158 absentee ballots cast. About 20 percent of the total votes were cast by absentee ballots, more than three times the statewide average.

After Dougherty's opponent, Mark Jenkins, challenged the election, a three-judge panel threw out the results. Jenkins was appointed by a new town council named by the judges.

In neighboring Wise County, a similar controversy over absentee voting has been brewing for just as long. Although the outcome of the 2004 town elections in Appalachia was not decided by the absentee vote, authorities are investigating claims that some voters had their mail-in ballots taken and others were offered beer or cigarettes in exchange for their votes.