Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Inquiry into vote buying expands

State police searched the offices of Appalachia's town hall and police department.

A state police investigation into election fraud in Appalachia has reached past the town's 2004 elections and into its town hall, its police department and the homes of its top officials.

Armed with a dozen search warrants, police officers swarmed into the small coal-mining town in far Southwest Virginia on Monday morning to seize potential evidence from government buildings.

No charges have been filed. Court records indicate that authorities are looking into suspicions of both election fraud and the government corruption that it spawned.

Among the claims: that some votes were bought with promises of cigarettes and six-packs of beer, that absentee ballots were stolen from voters' mailboxes and fraudulently cast, and that one of the candidates for the town council went on to head the town police department, now suspected of illegally seizing drugs, money and property.

"It was a very disturbing discovery today," special prosecutor Tim McAfee said after a day of police searches. "We've got pre-election misconduct, we've got Election Day misconduct, and we've got post-election misconduct."

In addition to seizing evidence from the town hall and the police department, authorities also raided the homes of a town council member, the police captain and the mayor.

The investigation will even reach into the mouths of six suspects, with police planning to take saliva swabs that will be compared to DNA recovered from the envelopes that contained dozens of disputed absentee ballots.

Nearly two years ago, town resident Christina McKinney sparked the probe when she complained that family members of Andy Sharrett, one of seven candidates running for the council, enlisted her to vote by absentee ballot -- only to take her ballot from her mailbox and cast it in her name.

McKinney said she and other residents of her government-subsidized apartment complex were offered cigarettes, beer and even a bag of pork skins in exchange for their votes.

When authorities checked out her story, "what stuck out like a neon light flashing was the fact that there was not just one incident, but there were probably 60 or 70 voters where it looked like something had happened," McAfee said.

Since then, the election probe has led authorities to look into the town's police department.

"The investigation into the election fraud claims by many voters has revealed a conspiracy by a lot of individuals to violate the election laws, with one of the goals being to allow the creation of a police department that was controlled and would permit certain illegal activities to occur," McAfee said.

Search warrants identify police Capt. Benjamin Surber, who was once a candidate for the town council.

Shortly before the 2004 election, Surber withdrew from the race and supported a slate of three candidates that included Sharrett and incumbent councilman Ben Cooper. Both Sharrett and Cooper were elected; the new council then named Cooper mayor.

Not long after the new council took over, Surber was named police captain, the de facto head of a five-man department that has no chief, McAfee said.

Search warrants executed on Surber's home and police headquarters show that authorities are interested in examining the workings of the department since May 2004.

The warrants authorized police to seize records related to Surber's hiring and other personnel issues. Authorities also were looking for paperwork involving drug arrests, search warrants, the use of confidential sources, seizures of money and property, and the work schedules and mileage claims of individual police officers.

Evidence uncovered Monday indicates that drugs were often seized without proper warrants or record keeping, McAfee said, and that there is little accounting for what happened to it afterward.

In addition to the police department, authorities are focusing on what happened in the Sharrett home on Lee Street.

Councilman Andy Sharrett shares the home with two family members implicated in the search warrants. His father, Owen "Dude" Sharrett, is head of the town's parks and recreation department. His mother, Belinda Sharrett, is a bookkeeper at town hall.

The warrants seek saliva samples from all three Sharretts, in addition to various records and paperwork that might have been in their home.

Cooper's home also was searched Monday, and he and Surber will be required to submit saliva samples.

Police also are seeking DNA samples from two other people, and McAfee said the investigation could extend beyond the six people named in search warrants executed Monday.

A 60-page affidavit that details what investigators have found to date -- and which convinced a judge that there was sufficient evidence to issue the 12 search warrants -- remains sealed in Wise County Circuit Court. What's known is that authorities are investigating the following crimes: voting more than once in the same election, theft of ballots and other voting records, aiding or abetting in the violation of absentee voting procedures, and hindering a citizen's right to vote -- a charge that has been used to allege vote buying.

Nearly 20 percent of the votes cast in the town election were by absentee ballot, nearly four times the state average.

McAfee said he might be ready to seek charges by the end of February. But that could depend on whether state police continue to discover illegal activity they were not aware of, as happened Monday.

"We're going to investigate everything," the prosecutor said, "because we can't trust any of it."