Clay Co. vote-buying investigation keeps expanding

bestep@herald-leader.comMay 18, 2009 

In the latest phase of a criminal investigation that has already sent several prominent Clay County residents to prison, the current circuit judge and several city council candidates in Manchester have been implicated in vote-buying, according to a sworn statement in the case.

A source told authorities that the judge, Oscar Gayle House, gave $1,000 to a city contractor named William Bart Morris to buy votes for House's wife, Sherry, in a council race, according to FBI Agent Timothy S. Briggs.

Eight Clay County residents have been charged with racketeering for allegedly buying or stealing votes in the case in which the affidavit was filed. They were indicted in March in a scheme that allegedly lasted from March 2002 to July 2007.

The indictment was the latest shoe to fall in the investigation that has gutted the long-time local power structure.

House was a district judge during much of the period under investigation by the FBI, winning election to the circuit bench in 2007. The agent's statement did not say when House allegedly gave money to buy votes.

House, who has not been charged, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

Those charged are former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle; school Superintendent Douglas Adams; county Clerk Freddy Thompson; Charles Wayne Jones, the county's Democratic election commissioner; election officers William Stivers and Paul Bishop; and Morris and his wife Debra, who own a waste-hauling company that does business with the city.

All have pleaded innocent.

Briggs' recently unsealed affidavit alleges that vote-buying efforts in the county went beyond those who have been indicted so far.

It also provides a window into how prominent people allegedly used money, jobs and power to try to rig elections.

Participants allegedly began poring over voter lists months before elections to figure out which ones might sell their ballots. They picked a slate of candidates to buy votes for, and candidates pooled cash to pay for votes, Briggs said witnesses told investigators.

At polling places, corrupt election officers gave people a ticket or sticker after they voted as they were supposed to; vote-haulers would then drive them somewhere—Morris' house, in many cases—to redeem the ticket for cash from others involved in the scam, according to the witnesses.

One witness who gave rides to voters, Deshae Henson, said he had seen "large sums of money, bags full, carried into Bart and Debbie Morris' residence to bribe voters," Briggs said in his statement.

Henson also said he had heard of election officers casting votes under the names of dead people, Briggs said.

Bus routes and driveways

Briggs said that Vernon Hacker, a former city council member, told investigators he knew Stivers and Bishop—both election officers—were buying votes for Thompson at the absentee polling place in the 2002 primary because he and another man were there buying votes for Jennings B. White, the two-term county clerk Thompson was trying to unseat.

The faction headed by White allegedly pooled $490,000 to buy votes in 2002, according to a court document..

Hacker said that during the bare-knuckle race between White and Thompson, he was promised that if he would switch and help Thompson, Adams -- the school superintendent -- would give Hacker's wife a better job and give Hacker back his old bus route, according to the affidavit.

Hacker was a bus driver. Adams had put him on a less desirable route because he was supporting White, Hacker told investigators.

Darnell Hipsher, a former city council member, told investigators that in the 2006 council election, five candidates put in $1,000 apiece to buy votes. They were Hacker, Laura House, Jamie Mills, Jeff Deaton and Penny Robinson, Briggs said Hipsher told him.

None of those five has been charged with vote-buying, and some are no longer on the council.

Several could not be reached, but Deaton, who is still a council member, said he did not participate in vote-buying in 2006.

"I don't know nothing about their little poolin,'" said Deaton, a former employee of the Manchester police department and county school system.

Asked why Hipsher would say Deaton was involved in vote-buying, Deaton said, "Everybody's going to tell everything they can to get time knocked off of 'em."

Hipsher was convicted earlier in a scheme to win votes by paving some Manchester residents' driveways for free. He is in federal prison.

Talking from prison

The affidavit makes clear that several former Manchester and Clay County officials convicted earlier have given information about alleged crimes by others.

Former Mayor Daugh K. White; former assistant police Chief Todd Roberts; Hacker, who was director of the city-county 911 system; and Hipsher are all cited as sources in Brigg's statement. All are in prison.

White, Roberts and Hacker admitted that, among other things, they got a drug dealer to burn down a vacant house so the landowner would sell the lot to the city. White's son Kennon White, one-time city manager, pleaded guilty to extorting kickbacks from a contractor who is a county magistrate.

Jennings White, the former clerk, pleaded guilty to laundering money for a drug dealer.

He also admitted he took part in vote fraud when he was the county's chief election officer, Briggs said.

Maricle and the others charged in the latest phase of the investigation wanted to hold on to power and enrich themselves and friends, the indictment charged.

Hipsher said the Morrises help council members get elected in order to keep their city contract for garbage service, for instance, Briggs said.

And Maricle took a keen interest in the 2006 elections to assure that his son-in-law, Phillip Mobley, would be elected property valuation administrator, Briggs said in his statement.

In the 2006 elections, corrupt precinct workers allegedly duped voters into leaving the voting machine before pushing the button to finalize their vote, then changed the selections.

A government witness who was an election officer that year said when Maricle came to vote, he was amused by the vote-fraud effort he had helped engineer, Briggs said.

"Keep running them through," he said, the source told investigators.

But Maricle's attorney, David Hoskins, said that the government has tried to use weak evidence against Maricle.

"At this point, we're disputing absolutely everything," Hoskins said.

Doug Abner, a minister active in reform efforts in the county, said he's talked with people at times who don't even recognize that vote-buying is illegal and immoral.

"It's just been a way of life," he said.

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