|Saturday, June 26, 2004
'Operation Big Coon Dog' buzz bemuses, angers Grundy folks
|Some residents fume over not getting help with flood damage; others muse over dogs as bribes.
By Jen McCaffery
GRUNDY - Coon dogs were all the buzz at the Heavenly Hair salon in Buchanan County the morning after news broke that 16 people and six companies were charged in a public corruption case that federal prosecutors have dubbed "Operation Big Coon Dog."
"Operation Coon Dogs, that's what's funny about it," said 62-year-old Lucille Meadows, as beautician Debra Estep set her curls during her weekly Friday morning appointment. "If it were me, it'd be taking something else."
"A house in Myrtle Beach!" suggested Estep, 44.
"Instead of stupid coon dogs," Meadows agreed. "I don't see what people get out of coon dogs myself. All they do is howl, day in and day out."
People at Heavenly Hair and elsewhere in Grundy and the once flood-ravaged town of Hurley had plenty to say about what federal prosecutor Tom Bondurant has described as the largest public corruption case in Western Virginia in at least more than 20 years -and not all of it concerned the coon dogs.
"We think if they have to go to prison, they should have to fix roads, dig ditches, work in the fields, digging potatoes and stuff," Estep said.
"I think they ought to have time," said another salon customer, Virginia Smith, 74. "But they'll probably get out of it."
Some residents claimed surprise that agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service showed up in Suburbans early Thursday morning and started arresting people.
Others said they'd heard rumors for more than a year that public officials such as former chairman of the Buchanan County Board of Supervisors Stuart Ray Blankenship and current chairman James Ralph "Pete" Stiltner were being investigated. And speculation is rife about who's next - federal prosecutors have said the investigation is ongoing, and they expect more charges.
In the current case, federal prosecutors say public officials in Buchanan County agreed to award contracts worth $7.6 million to local contractors to clean up debris from the devastating floods in Hurley in May 2002, which caused the death of two people and about $30 million in damage.
The contractors, in turn, bribed public officials, prosecutors say, with cash, all-terrain vehicles, $350,000 in cash, tickets to sporting events, more than $60,000 in fraudulent land deals, $40,000 worth of coon dogs and other services, including the feeding and cleanup detail for the coon dogs.
Residents of Grundy and Hurley clamored for news Friday about the charges against people, some of whom they grew up with. As news of arrests spread Thursday morning, some residents checked in on news Web sites. And Friday, about a hundred people came in looking for a copy of the local newspaper, the Bristol Herald Courier, said Ed Dotson, who owns Dotson's IGA in Hurley.
Mingled with intense interest in the case was often a palpable anger in an area that has not only seen its share of natural and economic woe, but has dealt with corruption among its public officials before. In 1991, all seven county supervisors were indicted on charges of embezzling county funds through a mileage scam.
"I think it's a black eye for Buchanan County," said county sheriff Ray Foster of the current case. "It's the good people that's really going to take the brunt of it."
Foster said he worried that in the wake of the charges that local officials fraudulently awarded contracts, in which the bulk of the payment came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, federal authorities are going to be wary of giving more money to the county. The Oakwood area of the county experienced severe damage from flash floods again earlier this month.
"Here they are asking for more flood money. How's that going to look?" asked Foster.
Much of the talk in Grundy and Hurley focused on Stiltner and Blankenship.
Stiltner, 51, has pleaded not guilty to racketeering, program fraud, money laundering and perjury charges. He faces up to 115 years in prison and a fine of up to $2.5 million. He could not be reached for comment and no one answered the door at his mobile home.
Foster, who said he is a distant relative of Stiltner's, said, "Pete's tried to help people in Buchanan County; he may have just got tied up where he shouldn't have been."
Wally Pritchard, 60, said he's known Stiltner since he was a child and said he comes from a great family.
"As far as for personal gain, I really don't think Pete had those intentions," Pritchard said.
Brenda Hilton, who owns Hilton's Grocery Store and Deli just outside Hurley, said she was angry about the case because of the allegations that defendants made millions while local businesses and people spent their savings and maxed out their credit cards to repair and save their businesses, and got no federal help.
"I never got nothing," said Hilton, 52. "Everybody else got it."
Another Hurley resident, Edna Endicott, who was helping hold a bake sale to raise money for the Hurley High School cheerleaders outside Dotson's, described Blankenship as a good supervisor. Until last year, he always got money to pay for shoes for the cheerleaders, said Endicott, 49.
Blankenship, 52, did not return calls for comment and did not answer the door at his house. He is scheduled to plead guilty to racketeering and money laundering with three other defendants in the case in federal court in Abingdon on Friday.
A felony conviction in Buchanan County does not necessarily mean the end of one's political career. The former chairman of the board of supervisors, William Morris, was convicted in the 1991 case. He later had his civil rights restored by the governor. Last fall, he was re-elected to the board.
Still, allegations of corruption do worry some.
"It makes it really hard when you go to vote," said Nell Deel, 48, who owns Heavenly Hair. "You always have it in the back of your mind."
Some people don't even vote anymore because of the sense that politicians are crooked, she said.