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Friday, March 03, 2006

Critics say town's mayor rules with an iron fist

With much of Appalachia's power structure under indictment Thursday, attention turned naturally to Ben Cooper.

As mayor and acting town manager, Cooper is the hands-on head honcho of Appalachia, a coal-mining town of 1,800 that sits less than 10 miles from the Kentucky border.

He presides over town council meetings, shows up at the scene of water main breaks and automobile accidents, and is often seen cruising the streets in his town-issued red Bronco.

He was also seen at the polls during the town elections of May 4, 2004 -- when, according to indictments returned by a Wise County grand jury, he cheated democracy.

The 63-year-old mayor was charged Thursday with about 240 counts of election fraud, including theft of election documents, violating absentee voting laws and making false statements on election forms.

Cooper's critics see the charges as a testament to the retired military man's top-down style of running the town.

"I think he's obsessed with power," said Rick Bowman, a former member of town council. "Everything he's gotten into he's wanted to control and to run."

Cooper could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Thursday's indictments were not the first time Cooper's pursuit of town duties have landed him in legal trouble.

In February 2004, Cooper had a run-in with town manager Vern Haefele at town hall.

Haefele claimed he was leaving his office when Cooper accosted him and demanded a copy of a fire marshal's inspection report on the town civic center, according to an account published in the Coalfield Progress.

A shoving match ensued, and each man charged the other with assault.

Haefele also swore out a felony abduction charge against Cooper, claiming the then-council member made him a prisoner in his own office.

When the case went to court several months later, both men agreed to drop the charges.

But all was not forgiven, it seems. In the town elections that May, Cooper devoted much of his campaign for mayor to a town reorganization in which "getting rid of Vern was the main thing," Bowman said.

When Cooper and his slate of candidates won an election that now appears tainted in light of the criminal charges, Haefele was fired at the first meeting of the new town council.

Cooper was then appointed acting town manager, a position he still holds today.

The May 2004 elections gave Cooper his second term as mayor. During his first term in 2002, he was charged with interfering with Appalachia fire and rescue vehicles at the scene of an accident.

A General District Court judge dismissed the charge, which was brought by fire officials who complained that Cooper regularly followed them to the scene of fender-benders and fires in an apparent effort to monitor their response time and performance.

"He wants full control of the town," said Robert Anderson, who at the time was fire chief and often clashed with Cooper. "He wants to micromanage everything."

After spending most of his Air Force career in Florida, Cooper returned to his native Appalachia about seven years ago and quickly became involved in civic affairs, according to longtime town resident Emma Jane James, who grew up near the Cooper homestead.

Now divorced and living with his mother, Cooper seems to have both the time and the inclination to make running a small town his full-time job.

"He makes the rules," James said, "and everybody is expected to fall in with what he says."

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