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Friday, March 03, 2006

Top cop, mayor indicted

The indictment lists about two crimes for every vote cast in the May 2004 elections in the Wise County town of Appalachia.

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APPALACHIA -- A sweeping indictment alleges a town election fraught with fraud, with two candidates and their supporters buying votes with beer and cigarettes, stealing mail-in ballots and voting repeatedly for themselves in the name of a deceived electorate.

The indictment returned Thursday by a Wise County grand jury contained more than 1,000 violations of election laws -- about two crimes for every vote cast in the May 2004 election in Appalachia.

At the center of the alleged conspiracy is Ben Cooper, the mayor and acting town manager of this small town in far Southwest Virginia.

According to the 300-page indictment, one of the goals in electing Cooper and his two running mates to town council was "the control of the town of Appalachia by one person, Ben Ellis Cooper."

Not only did Cooper and his allies buy and steal votes to accomplish that goal, the indictment alleges, but they also used their stolen mandate to create a corrupt police department that was given the authority to harass their political enemies.

In one case, Cooper is charged with settling a personal grudge by directing police officers to seize money and property from an enemy's home in an illegal search.

Two police officers were among the 14 defendants charged Thursday.

Also charged were a former mail carrier accused of intercepting mail-in ballots, three voters charged with fabricating election records, and council member Owen "Andy" Sharrett and six of his family members -- two of them town employees.

The defendants are charged with violating absentee voting laws, stealing election records, forging ballots, hindering the rights of citizens to vote freely, and voting more than once in the same election.

"There are many, many victims associated with this," Special Prosecutor Tim McAfee said.

The victims include not just individual voters, he said, but also the democratic process as a whole.

"We're willing to have Americans die for the right to vote," McAfee said. "And that vote is alleged to have been violated in the May elections of 2004."

At a news conference following the grand jury session, McAfee said the offenses contained in the indictment fall into three categories: pre-election misconduct, Election Day misconduct, and post-election misconduct.

The pre-election misconduct was directed mainly at enlisting absentee voters in the campaign to elect Cooper, Sharrett and Eddie Gollaway, who was not charged Thursday.

According to the indictment, the candidates and their supporters offered beer and cigarettes to residents in exchange for their votes, often canvassing low-income neighborhoods where people "would be less likely to understand they were being victimized by voter fraud."

Once someone agreed to vote by absentee ballot -- often listing a false reason at the encouragement of one of the defendants -- the person's application was mailed to the county registrar's office, according to the indictment.

In most cases, the registrar approved the application and mailed a ballot back to the voter.

The ballots were then intercepted, either stolen from voters' mailboxes or lifted from the mail as they passed through the Appalachia post office, the indictment alleges.

Former mail carrier Don Houston Estridge is charged with taking some of the ballots and delivering them to the defendants. "Many of these absentee ballots never saw the intended recipients," McAfee said.

Although he is not charged, the postmaster of Appalachia is named in the indictment. He is Sid Cooper, the brother of Ben Cooper.

With the stolen ballots then in hand, the indictment alleges, Ben Cooper, Sharrett and their supporters voted for themselves, forged the names of the people to whom the ballots were intended, and mailed them back to the registrar's office to be counted in the upcoming election.

When Election Day came, the scheme shifted to manipulating the walk-in voters, McAfee said.

Once again, bribes were offered to get out the vote, the indictment alleges. But when the voters arrived at the polls, they were directed to fraudulently fill out forms attesting that they needed assistance to vote, according to the indictment. Such forms are usually used by handicapped voters.

The voters were then escorted into the polling booth by one of the defendants, who actually pulled the levers to collect more votes for Cooper, Sharrett and Gollaway, the indictment alleges.

With the election won, Cooper and Sharrett then turned their attention to the police department, McAfee said in outlining the post-election misconduct charged in the indictment.

Ben Surber, who had been a candidate for town council but withdrew at the last minute and threw his support behind the winning slate, was named captain of the police department.

Surber was just a "figurehead" for a five-man police force that was controlled by Cooper, McAfee said.

While Surber was collecting a town paycheck for doing no work, the prosecutor said, other police officers were directed by Cooper and others to conduct searches and raids of homes in which they sometimes kept for themselves the cash and personal property that was seized.

After one such search of a home of one of Cooper's personal enemies, he used his authority as town manager to terminate water service to the house the following day, according to the indictment.

Despite the seriousness of the charges, McAfee said he had no authority to ask for the resignations of any elected officials or town employees.

Some of the employees charged include Sharrett's father, Owen "Dude" Sharrett, who is director of the town's Parks and Recreation Department, and his mother, Belinda Sharrett, who works as a bookkeeper at town hall.

McAfee said the investigation is still continuing and additional charges are likely.

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