Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Gate City politician acquitted of vote fraud

GATE CITY — A small-town politician accused of cheating his way to a two-vote victory on Election Day got the 12 votes he wanted Tuesday — from a jury.

The Scott County jury acquitted Charles Dougherty of two counts of election fraud that stemmed from his aggressive courting of absentee voters in the disputed election for mayor of Gate City in May 2004.

A clearly relieved Dougherty was surrounded by friends and family members following the verdict, which came after a day of testimony in which one voter said the ex-mayor paid her $7 for a pint of liquor in exchange for her vote.

Dougherty’s relief may be short-lived; he still faces another 35 counts of election fraud.

In fact, Tuesday’s trial could prove to be just the first chapter in a long-running saga of alleged election fraud and corruption in far Southwest Virginia.

Special prosecutor Joel Branscom told the jury that he may seek additional charges in the Gate City case. Meanwhile, an investigation of votes reportedly bought for beer, cigarettes and pork rinds in neighboring Wise County is nearing completion.

But at least for Tuesday, the jury’s attention was narrowed to Beverly Robinette, Rebecca Lane and the votes the two women cast in Gate City.

Robinette testified that Dougherty came to her small apartment April 19 and asked if she would vote for him. “I said I would for $7 to buy a pint of liquor,” Robinette told the jury to a chorus of snickers from the crowded courtroom gallery.

The 57-year-old woman said she made her request based on prior Gate City history. “I’ve always got paid to vote,” she explained.

After Dougherty came up with the cash, Robinette agreed to ride to the registrar’s office with him and Jack Anderson, a running mate of the then-incumbent mayor who was seeking another term on the town council.

Once at the registrar’s office, Robinette said someone else filled out the paperwork stating that she needed to vote by absentee ballot because she planned to be out of town on Election Day.

And with Dougherty standing over her shoulder and watching the whole time, she said, she began to fill out the ballot. She voted for Dougherty and Anderson first. “He said: 'Are you going to vote for this lady’s son?’ and I said 'No, because I don’t know him,’ ” Robinette said.

Lane, who lives in an assisted living center because of health problems and what Branscom called a “somewhat diminished mental capacity,” told a similar story.

Lane said that Dougherty and Anderson showed up in her room one day with the absentee ballot she had received — even though she had not been a resident of Gate City for three years — and offered their assistance.

“That was when he voted me,” she said of what Dougherty did next, explaining how he filled out her ballot for the candidates she chose.

Yet neither Lane nor Robinette said she was forced to vote — an admission that defense attorney Carl McAfee was quick to capitalize on.

Dougherty was accused of conspiring to “injure, oppress, threaten, intimidate, prevent or hinder” the two women in the free exercise of their right to vote. There was no evidence that he did any of those things, McAfee told the jury.

“It may not be the right thing to do,” he said of some of his client’s campaign techniques, “but it is not a crime.”

He also asked that if Dougherty conspired to rig an election, why was he the only person indicted? “There’s a chair missing over there,” he said, pointing to the defense table where Dougherty sat alone.

Branscom, the Botetourt County commonwealth’s attorney called in to prosecute the case because of its political sensitivity, responded that he may seek additional charges.

Dougherty, who presented no evidence Tuesday, declined to comment after the trial. Although the jailer and former sheriff’s deputy won the mayor’s race nearly two years ago, a three-judge panel later threw out the results based on a challenge from his opponent.

Mark Jenkins disputed his two-vote loss after learning that an unusually high number of absentee ballots were cast in the election, with nearly all of them going to Dougherty.

A new council appointed by the judges then named Jenkins mayor.

In his closing arguments, Branscom said Dougherty targeted the disadvantaged and the downtrodden because their votes were the easiest to manipulate. Rather than depend on their votes at the polls, he said, Dougherty sought to confront the voters individually and coerce them into voting for him by absentee ballot.

“Because if you want to steal an election,” he said, “you have to do it one vote at a time.”