Friday, December 01, 2006

Appalachia's ex-mayor convicted of 243 felonies

Ben Cooper's charges included election fraud and conspiracy in rigging a town election.

Ben Cooper, the former mayor and town manager of Appalachia who rigged an election to tighten his grip on the small coal-mining town, was convicted Thursday of 243 felonies.

Appearing in Wise County Circuit Court on his 64th birthday, Cooper pleaded no contest 10 times and guilty to the remaining 233 charges of election fraud and conspiracy. He was allowed to remain free on bond until his Jan. 9 sentencing.

Special prosecutor Tim McAfee presented no new evidence, telling Judge Tammy McElyea that she had heard most of the case against Cooper during a two-week trial in October for one of his co-defendants, a former postal employee convicted in a conspiracy to steal absentee ballots from the mail.

The conspiracy involved forging the names of the intended voters on the stolen ballots and mailing them back to the voter registrar -- a scheme that allowed Cooper and running mate Owen "Andy" Sharrett to vote repeatedly for themselves.

Fourteen people, most of them relatives of Sharrett's or supporters of Cooper's campaign to shake up town hall, were indicted earlier this year in what political observers called the largest case of election fraud in recent Virginia history.

Testimony and interviews with town residents have portrayed Cooper as a micromanager who became obsessed with controlling all of Appalachia, an economically depressed town of about 1,800 in far Southwest Virginia.

Cooper's name was mentioned during last month's trial in testimony about another part of the scheme -- plying some town residents with beer, cigarettes and snacks to persuade them to vote for him either by absentee ballot or at the polls.

Following his re-election as a town council member on May 4, 2004, Cooper followed through on his pledge to fire the town manager, a bitter political foe with whom he once had a physical altercation in the municipal building. At the same time, the new council named Cooper mayor and acting town manager, positions he surrendered following his indictment.

A plea agreement signed last month made no deal on Cooper's sentence; that will be decided by the judge.

Also on Thursday, seven others involved in the conspiracy -- including town clerk Belinda Sharrett and former police Officer Benjamin Surber -- pleaded guilty and received sentences that ranged from probation to 60 days of house arrest. The rest of the defendants, including Andy Sharrett, have signed letters of cooperation and are scheduled to plead guilty over the next two months.