Closing arguments begin in Clay Co. trial

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 23, 2010 

FRANKFORT — Some of the most powerful public officials in Clay County dirtied their hands in a conspiracy to buy and steal votes so they could hold power and enrich themselves and people close to them, a federal prosecutor argued Monday in seeking the conviction of eight people charged with election fraud.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen C. Smith reminded jurors of testimony from witnesses who said it has been commonplace for candidates in the county to band together in slates and to pool large sums of money to bribe voters.

"People in Clay County would put together hundreds of thousands of dollars to control these elections," Smith said. "The motive is power, money."

Smith began his closing argument Monday against eight Clay County residents indicted last year for allegedly scheming to rig elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

Defense attorneys did not present closing arguments Monday. Those arguments are scheduled for Tuesday, along with an additional argument from the prosecutor.

When the case is submitted to jurors, they will have a lot of information to sift through. There have been dozens of witnesses since the trial started Feb. 2, and the jury instructions on the complex case total more than 100 pages.

Those on trial are former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle; former school Superintendent Douglas C. Adams; county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson; Magistrate Stanley Bowling; Charles Wayne Jones, a former Democratic election commissioner who is Thompson's father-in-law; William Stivers, a former election official; and William Bart Morris and his wife, Debra Morris.

They allegedly used the county board of elections as a vehicle to buy and steal votes, putting corrupt election workers in place to help, for instance.

The defendants have denied the charges.

But in beginning to sum up the case against them Monday, Smith said that they all played various roles.

For instance, Adams, head of the county's biggest employer, and Maricle, the top legal authority in the county, used their considerable influence in activities such as picking slates of candidates and choosing election officers, Smith said.

"When you're circuit judge, you can look down and pull the strings," Smith said.

Defense attorneys have said the charge that the eight worked together to corrupt elections doesn't make sense because not all of them supported the same candidates, especially in the contentious May 2002 primary in which Thompson beat the incumbent clerk, Jennings White.

But Smith said the conspiracy was not necessarily about who was on a slate of candidates but rather about controlling elections.

People moved in and out of the conspiracy, and it's not unusual that they didn't agree on every candidate at times, Smith said.

"Just like any other criminal organization, criminals don't always get along," Smith said.

Political party affiliation didn't mean much, either, Smith said.

For instance, in 2006, Maricle and Jones, both Democrats, allegedly took part with Thompson, a Republican, in a scheme to switch voters' choices on voting machines, lining up the Republican and Democrat precinct workers to help.

Maricle's son-in-law, a Republican, was running for property valuation assessor that year.

Smith said Thompson and Jones showed those two precinct officials how to switch the votes and signed reports with fraudulent totals that were mailed to state officials.

After the FBI began investigating, Stivers coached a witness on how to lie to a federal grand jury, Smith said.

Smith argued that the Morrises helped buy votes so candidates they worked for would help approve contracts for Bart Morris' garbage-transfer business, while Bowling wanted work for his excavation business.

There was testimony that Thompson put in $140,000 to buy votes in 2002. Smith said some jurors might wonder why someone would do that, but he pointed out that Thompson has since collected about half a million dollars in salary.

There has been testimony during the trial about a number of people who allegedly pooled money to buy votes — including several current local officeholders — who are not charged in the case.

Smith told jurors that was not an issue. Everyone involved in the vote fraud doesn't have to be charged "in this case," he said.

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