Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Appalachia action yields half a million

The suspected illegal assets have been frozen until authorities can determine their source.

More than $500,000 has been seized so far as authorities continue an investigation into illegal gambling and its possible ties to public corruption in the small town of Appalachia.

Authorities say the money -- about half of it from safe deposit boxes and the rest in various bank accounts -- is linked to three Main Street gambling establishments suspected of paying off town officials in exchange for an agreement that local police would not interfere with their business.

Special prosecutor Tim McAfee compared what authorities have discovered so far to organized crime more likely to be found in Chicago or New York City than a town of 2,000 in far Southwest Virginia.

After a series of raids Saturday morning revealed evidence of widespread wagering in establishments run out of vacant Main Street storefronts, authorities spent Sunday preparing forfeiture papers intended to capture the enterprises' suspected illegal assets.

As a team of law enforcement officers entered a bank in Big Stone Gap on Monday morning, McAfee said, one of the suspects was in the drive-through lane withdrawing money.

The man left the bank with $5,000. But that turned out to be pocket change compared to what authorities had found by the end of the day.

"If somebody said we were going to seize half a million dollars, I would not have thought that," McAfee said.

The money and assets have been frozen pursuant to a court order until authorities can determine their source.

The raids on the suspected gambling houses are an outgrowth of a state police investigation into election fraud.

Authorities believe that some candidates for town council used illegal means to get into office -- buying some votes with beer and cigarettes and stealing absentee ballots from the mail -- in order to control a local police department that was then ordered to steer clear of the gambling establishments.

"Everybody knows that gambling has gone on in Appalachia for a long time," said Rick Bowman, a former member of town council. "It's become a way of life, just like political corruption has been."

Although the investigation into election fraud has yielded an indictment charging 14 people with nearly 1,000 offenses, the gambling probe has yet to produce any charges.

The investigation includes "past and present public officials," some of them town council members who have been known to frequent the gambling establishments, McAfee said. He did not identify the public officials, or say how much they are suspected to have been paid by the owners of the gaming houses.

Also over the weekend, police found a handgun and ammunition in the home of Appalachia Mayor Ben Cooper, who is at the heart of the state's election fraud indictment.

Because Cooper has been convicted of a domestic-related assault, he is not allowed to have a gun, McAfee said. Prosecutors have filed a motion to have his bond revoked, and a hearing has been scheduled for Friday afternoon in Wise County Circuit Court.

Patty Church, a Lee County attorney who represents Cooper, did not return a call to her office Tuesday.