Saturday, September 09, 2006

Appalachia defendants agree to cooperate

Twelve of fourteen charged in the election fraud case have signed letters of cooperation with the prosecutor.

What's been called the biggest election fraud scandal in recent state history is not likely to produce a trial of similar proportions.

Of the 14 people charged earlier this year in a scheme to buy, steal or fabricate votes in the 2004 Appalachia town elections, 12 of them -- including former Mayor Ben Cooper -- have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

That leaves just one person, a former postal worker charged with stealing absentee ballots from the mail for two candidates, to contest the charges at an October trial that once held the prospect of having more defendants than jurors.

The final defendant who has not signed a letter of agreement with prosecutors, a former Appalachia police officer, will likely be tried later in the year, special prosecutor Tim McAfee said this week.

In March, a state police investigation into election fraud in Appalachia, a small coal-mining town just miles from the Kentucky border, culminated when a Wise County grand jury returned a 300-page indictment alleging widespread corruption and police misconduct.

Fourteen people were charged with nearly 1,000 crimes related to an alleged scheme to buy votes in the municipal elections with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds. In some cases, absentee ballots were stolen from the mail and fraudulently cast for a slate of candidates that included Cooper, the indictment alleges.

After winning a seat on town council and being appointed mayor, Cooper used his ill-gotten power to direct a rogue police force to conduct warrantless raids on the homes of his political enemies, the indictment also claims.

In addition to Cooper, the defendants included a second candidate for town council, six of his family members, two town employees and two police officers. Only Don Estridge, the postal worker scheduled to go on trial beginning Oct. 3, and police officer Walter Baber have not signed letters of cooperation with McAfee's office.

Although no formal deals have been made, the letters indicate that the cooperating defendants will likely plead guilty sometime after the trial and be sentenced in accordance with their level of assistance.

"You must understand that the Commonwealth will continue to seek an appropriate punishment for you based upon the totality of the circumstances, which shall include the quantity and quality of your cooperation," a letter from McAfee to Cooper stated.

Cooper, who faces 244 felony charges, resigned as mayor and acting town manager following his indictment. His attorney, Patti Church, declined to comment in detail Friday on how his case might be resolved.

"Certainly given the statements made by his co-defendants, we believe that it's in his best interest to continue with the cooperative agreement," Church said.

At the time of the indictments, political analyst Larry Sabato said the number of charges and defendants made the Appalachia case the state's biggest election fraud scandal since 1945, when the disputed lieutenant governor's race also turned on election fraud in Wise County.