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Saturday, March 04, 2006

Townspeople shrug, go on

News that 14 people were indicted in Appalachia on election fraud charges does not shock many residents.

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APPALACHIA -- As this town celebrated its 100th birthday Friday, residents were talking about something that some said was almost as old as Appalachia: election fraud.

News that 14 people -- including the town's mayor and town manager, the top police officer, a member of town council and several municipal employees -- had been indicted in a massive voting fraud case came as the town was planning a parade and centennial ceremony for Friday night.

Some said the timing was unfortunate. Others saw it as sadly fitting, considering the town's history of corruption and fraud at the polls.

"I know it was a shady thing that went on, but this little town has been shady for a long time," Bill Cline said as he smoked a cigarette and watched a coal truck rumble down the town's dusty Main Street.

Longtime resident Emma Jane James agreed that criminal charges were "a long time coming."

James recalled a story told by her mother, who lived next to a cemetery in Appalachia. On autumn nights, James said, her mother could see the lights of lanterns held by politicians in the graveyard. They were looking for names on the headstones that could be illegally voted in the upcoming elections, she said.

"Back in the good old days, people would carry guns when they went to vote," she said.

James and others agreed it's not as bad now, and that the scandal over the May 2004 town elections has left a stigma that the good-hearted residents of this Wise County town of 1,800 don't deserve.

"We've had crooks on the town council over the years," said James, the author of a town history titled "As We Were: Memories of Appalachia and Her Surrounding Coal Camps." "But most of them are honest people."

By historical standards, University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato said this week's indictments in Appalachia stood as the state's worst case of election fraud in more than 60 years. He compared the case to the disputed lieutenant governor's race of 1945, which also turned on election fraud in Wise County. That year, a judge found the results from the county were so tainted with fraud that he threw them all out and awarded the election to the second-place finisher.

Sabato, who has written books about dirty elections, said he wasn't surprised by the Appalachia scandal. "I don't think it's restricted to the odd, occasional, off-year location election. This is a way of life in some of those communities."

With bad news blowing in like the cold front that gripped Appalachia on Friday, some people were predicting a small turnout for the planned birthday parade down Main Street.

Another complication was that the parade's organizer, Belinda Sharrett, was one of the 14 people indicted Thursday by a grand jury in Wise County Circuit Court.

The town bookkeeper, Sharrett is also the mother of Owen "Andy" Sharrett, one of the two town council members accused of buying some votes with cigarettes and beer.

The indictment also charges members of the Sharrett family -- six of them in all -- with voting early and often by stealing mail-in ballots from residents' mailboxes and the post office. The defendants then voted for themselves by forging the voters' signatures and mailing the absentee ballots back to the registrar's office, the indictment alleged.

As Appalachia absorbed the news Friday, there was also the question of whether the mayor, a fixture in most parades, would make an appearance that night.

Mayor and acting town manager Ben Cooper was at the heart of the alleged conspiracy, according to a 300-page indictment that contained allegations of more than 1,000 violations of election laws. Cooper, like the rest of the candidates on the ballot, ran as an independent.

Prosecutors claim Cooper set out to gain total control of the town by cheating his way to power on Election Day. Cooper then used that ill-gotten power to create a corrupt police department that he sometimes ordered to conduct unlawful searches of the homes of his enemies, the indictment claimed.

Repeated efforts to reach Cooper were unsuccessful.

As with most small towns, the mention of the mayor's name and the recent unpleasantness was a delicate topic for many people.

"I'm caught right smack dab in the middle," said Susie Richardson, who as owner of the Appalachia Beauty Shop cuts the hair of relatives of people on both the winning and losing sides of the town election nearly two years ago.

Most of the time, Richardson follows the hairdresser's creed: "You don't talk about sex, religion or politics," she said.

But in recent weeks, local politics is what her customers have wanted to talk about.

"Most of the people are upset because they're saying it's giving the town a bad name," Richardson said. But with the anger came the realization that perhaps the town can finally put a troubled chapter of its history behind it.

"It may take a while, but good will come from it," town resident Ann Austin said.

Austin made her comments at the Payless Grocery store, where you could buy a bag of Hogs Heaven pork rinds on Friday and get a second one free.

Pork rinds have become another sensitive subject in Appalachia.

The woman who launched a state police investigation of the disputed election, Christina McKinney, had said that members of the Sharrett family offered her pork rinds and a pack of cigarettes in exchange for her vote.

News media coverage of that encounter has overshadowed some of the more serious allegations, such as stealing ballots and forging the signatures of voters, Special Prosecutor Tim McAfee said at a news conference Thursday.

"I think it's a fair statement to say that this case is not about pork rinds," McAfee said.

Still, it was the complaint from McKinney, who also said her absentee ballot was stolen from her mailbox and fraudulently cast in her name, that began the investigation that now has the town government in such a pickle.

"Town Council is concerned about the indictments and there are some decisions that have to be made in the near future," town attorney Michael Abbott said.

Elected officials are not required to step down under such circumstances unless they are convicted of a felony, McAfee said.

James said she doesn't expect to see any resignations "as long as they have the power, the perks and the pay ... That's what this was all about in the first place."

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