Saturday, June 10, 2006

Appalachia probe into fraud yields its 1st conviction

Paul Edward Bevins, a former police officer for the city of Norton, pleaded guilty to perjury and embezzlement, as well as two unrelated charges.

For bickering with the mayor of Appalachia over his water bill, Franklin Thacker had his home raided by police officers in a trumped-up search for drugs, prosecutors say.

One of the officers who, according to prosecutors, acted at Mayor Ben Cooper's command that night pleaded guilty this week. It was the first conviction to result from an ongoing investigation into fraud and corruption in Appalachia.

According to special prosecutor Tim McAfee, Paul Edward Bevins was part of a rogue police force dispatched to the homes of Cooper's enemies -- not so much to enforce the law as to enact vengeance.

It was unclear exactly why Cooper was angry with Thacker; McAfee said the dispute was "something trivial" concerning Thacker's town water service. An indictment against Cooper alleges that the former mayor and town manager took the feud a step further the day after the illegal search, when he cut off Thacker's water service.

Bevins, a former officer for the nearby city of Norton, was convicted of embezzlement for using his position of authority to illegally take cash and prescription pills from Thacker's home. A second conviction for perjury was related to false statements Bevins made in a search warrant used for the raid.

"It just looks bad," McAfee said. "Bad, bad, bad."

Police misconduct in Appalachia, a small coal mining town just miles from the Kentucky border, came to light last year after authorities began investigating allegations of election fraud.

Cooper and 13 others are charged in a scheme that included buying votes with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds. Other votes were fraudulently cast with absentee ballots stolen from the mail, according to a grand jury indictment.

As police delved into an election fraud probe that yielded about 1,000 charges -- two alleged crimes for every vote cast in the May 4, 2004, town election -- a possible motive emerged: Victory at the polls enabled the winners to run a corrupt police force, McAfee said.

A grand jury in March charged two Appalachia police officers along with Cooper, two town employees, a second candidate for the council and six of his family members. Cooper has since resigned as mayor and acting town manager, but remains a member of the council.

"It kind of mushroomed from there," McAfee said of the investigation, which has since taken another turn. Investigators now believe gambling houses on the town's Main Street paid off some council members in exchange for assurances that police would not interfere in their illegal business.

Bevins, who was charged later as the investigation progressed, appeared in Wise County Circuit Court on Wednesday to enter Alford pleas, maintaining his innocence but acknowledging that the evidence was strong enough to convict him.

In charges unrelated to the Appalachia case, Bevins was also convicted of pilfering the evidence room at the Norton Police Department, taking prescription drugs and two guns.

A final charge of recklessly handling a firearm stemmed from an incident in February when Bevins, 35, returned to work following an illness. After learning that he was under investigation, Bevins shot himself in the leg with a .22-caliber handgun while alone at police headquarters.

Although it could have been an accident as Bevins asserted,

McAfee said the circumstances warranted a misdemeanor charge. For all of his convictions, Bevins received a suspended three-year prison sentence and was placed on probation. He also lost his job.

Bevins' attorney, Greg Gilbert of Norton, did not return a call Friday. Efforts to reach Thatcher, whose home was subjected to the illegal raid, were unsuccessful.

Also this week, three more people were charged in the growing election fraud case: an election worker accused of lying to a special grand jury, a convicted felon charged with voting in the election and Rex Bush.

Bush is the brother of former Appalachia Mayor Gary Bush, who lost a re-election bid in 2004.

Rex Bush is accused of making false statements on the absentee ballot application for another man and then fraudulently casting the vote himself -- a charge that until now had only been leveled against Cooper and his supporters.