Jury convicts all 8 defendants in Clay vote-buying case

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 26, 2010 

  • Chronology

    Other significant events in the long-running federal investigation in Clay County:

    Oct. 25, 2005: Jennings B. White, who served two terms as county clerk, admits laundering money for a large-scale drug trafficker. He said he got involved with the man while in office. He is sentenced to 90 months in prison, fined $25,000 and forfeits $650,000 to the government.

    Feb. 5, 2007: Vernon Hacker, a former Manchester council member and director of the local 911 system, pleads guilty to being involved in drug trafficking. A drug dealer said Hacker tipped him off about police activity. He is sentenced to 120 months in prison.

    April 27, 2007: D. Kennon White, whose father, Manchester Mayor Daugh White, created a job for him as city manager in 2004, pleads guilty to extorting kickbacks from a contractor and involvement in paving private driveways with taxpayers' money for political gain. The charges remain sealed for months as he helped federal investigators. He has not been sentenced.

    Aug. 13, 2007: Daugh White, who served 28 years as Manchester mayor before losing in 2006, pleads guilty to extortion and paving private drives. He is sentenced to 84 months and a $100,000 fine.

    Aug. 15, 2007: Darnell Hipsher, former Manchester city council member, pleads guilty to taking part in the scheme to pave private drives. He is sentenced to 46 months.

    Aug. 17, 2007: Todd Roberts, a former assistant police chief in Manchester, pleads guilty to involvement in having a drug dealer burn down a vacant house so the city could buy the property for construction of a new police and 911 building. He is sentenced to 87 months in prison, a $15,000 fine and restitution of $25,000.

    Nov. 20, 2007: Magistrate Fred Clinton Johnson pleads guilty to buying votes in the May 2002 primary. He is sentenced to 14 months in prison and fined $10,000.

    March 17, 2008: Charles "Dobber" Weaver, Manchester fire chief, pleads guilty to stealing votes in 2006 when he was a precinct officer. The scam involved duping voters into walking away from new, unfamiliar voting machines before completing their choices, then switching the votes. He has not been sentenced.

    March 19, 2009: Authorities arrest eight people on vote-fraud charges in the latest phase of the continuing investigation, including longtime Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle, school Superintendent Douglas C. Adams and county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson. Magistrate Stanley Bowling is charged later.

    May 29, 2009: Paul Bishop, a former precinct worker charged in the case, pleads guilty to buying votes. He has not been sentenced.

FRANKFORT — Some of the most powerful public officials in Clay County corrupted elections in recent years, buying and stealing votes in pursuit of power and money, a federal jury ruled Thursday.

The jury convicted all eight people on trial, including former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle, 66, and former school Superintendent Douglas C. Adams, 58, on a charge that they engaged in organized criminal acts to rig elections.

After a seven-week trial, jurors deliberated about nine hours before convicting the defendants on all the charges they faced, which included vote-buying, mail fraud, extortion and money laundering.

They face up to 20 years each on some charges.

The jury also ruled they were jointly liable for a judgment of $3.2 million, based on the salaries and contracts they were able to get as a result of illegal acts.

At the request of prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves ordered all eight jailed pending sentencing in August. Most had been free or on home detention before the trial.

After the conviction, Reeves ruled that they posed a danger to the community and that there was a risk they would flee.

Family members wept as the eight were led from the courtroom in handcuffs at the end of the day.

Those on trial were disappointed with the verdict.

"When you ain't done nothing, it's hard to take it," county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson said immediately after the verdict as he smoked a cigarette outside the federal courthouse.

It is likely all eight will appeal. One issue they could raise is that Reeves allowed the admission of evidence of vote-buying and other crimes by defendants from before the time covered in their indictment.

"I think there are many, many issues that are promising on appeal," said Maricle's attorney, David Hoskins.

More could be charged

The verdict raised the possibility that more people could be charged with vote fraud in the county.

Prosecutors and witnesses at the trial identified a number of others, including former and current public officials, who allegedly took part in buying votes.

"We are very pleased with the jury's verdict and look forward to continuing our investigation of many of the things we learned in this trial," said the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen C. Smith.

The verdict capped the latest phase of a federal investigation that has blown a hole in the power structure that held sway in Manchester and Clay County for years.

Several once-prominent officials were convicted in earlier phases of the investigation on corruption and drug charges, including a longtime mayor of Manchester, an assistant police chief, city council members, a county clerk and magistrates.

Those charged with Maricle, Adams and Thompson, 46, were Magistrate Stanley Bowling, 59; Charles Wayne Jones, 69, a former county Democratic election commissioner; William Stivers, 57, a former precinct worker; and William Bart Morris, 51, who owns a garbage-transfer company, and his wife Debra L. Morris, 50, who owns a beauty shop.

They were charged with using the county election board as a tool to rig elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006, appointing corrupt precinct officers to help with vote-buying.

The indictment charged that Maricle and Adams were political bosses who used their powerful positions to head the effort. The others allegedly played various roles, such as choosing corrupt election officers and paying voters.

The eight wanted to control elections so they could get power and enrich themselves and friends in a place where jobs are scarce, according to the charges and arguments in court.

In addition to jobs, there were city and county contracts at stake for Bowling's excavation company and Bart Morris' business, prosecutors and witnesses said.

"In Clay County, if you're not in politics or in with the clique, you don't get nothing," Kenneth Day, a convicted drug dealer and professed vote-buyer, testified.

The scheme to buy votes allegedly worked with practiced efficiency.

Participants checked lists of voters to identify those who would take bribes and lined up people to drive them to the polls, where complicit precinct workers made sure they voted correctly and gave them a sticker or ticket to redeem for payment, according to the indictment and testimony.

During the conspiracy, candidates banded together in slates and pooled their money to buy votes, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in some elections, witnesses said.

It was personal

The May 2002 primary — the first election cited in the indictment — was allegedly a high-water mark of vote fraud in the county, largely because of a bitter race for county clerk.

In that race, Thompson challenged incumbent Clerk Jennings B. White in the Republican primary.

The Whites had been a powerful political family in the county for years, holding the offices of mayor, school superintendent, county clerk and state representative at one time, with allies in other offices.

But in 2002, Adams decided to whip Jennings White, Adams' attorney, R. Kent Westberry, told jurors.

It was personal — one of Adams' daughters had a drug problem, and White was close to Day, a large-scale drug dealer, and other local officials who were protecting drug trafficking, Westberry said.

The election was a volatile, violent affair. White used his connections to have a Thompson supporter arrested and staged a shooting of his own van, which then-Sheriff Edd Jordan, an ally of White, said could have been carried out by Thompson's supporters.

Thompson said his house was shot into, and a man who had dug up dirt on White was shot from ambush.

The candidates and their allies allegedly put up several hundred thousand dollars to buy votes in the election, which Thompson won.

The FBI got complaints about the election and collected records that showed a high number of people asked for assistance in voting, said FBI special Agent Timothy Briggs.

That's one tactic vote-buyers use to make sure people vote as they were paid: corrupt election officers go into voting booths with people who request assistance.

Briggs said agents found that nearly 40 people who had said they needed help voting because they were blind actually had licenses to drive.

When the FBI asked them to come in for interviews, many drove themselves, Briggs testified.

Authorities at first couldn't get people to cooperate in the election investigation, but that changed in 2005 after federal agents arrested dozens of people in a multistate drug case. One was Day, who had been a county Republican election commissioner and said he'd bought votes for years.

In another case, a drug dealer told federal authorities he'd burned down a vacant house for the mayor, assistant police chief and 911 director in Manchester so the city could buy the land for a new police station and 911 office.

That case also opened doors in the vote-buying investigation.

An opportunity for a scam

In 2006, with the FBI a persistent presence in town, Maricle and others tried a new vote-fraud tactic that involved fewer people than buying votes — stealing votes, the indictment said.

The county had new voting machines that year that required people to push two buttons after making their choices — one to review choices and the second to record them.

That created opportunity for a scam in which corrupt precinct officers duped people into thinking they had voted after pressing the first button, then switched the votes, according to trial testimony.

Thompson, Jones and Stivers helped "school" her in how to do that when she worked as a precinct officer in May 2006, Wanda White testified.

White said Maricle got her to be an election officer because he wanted help for his son-in-law Phillip Mobley, who was running for property valuation administrator in that election.

Defense attorneys did not argue there was no vote-buying in Clay County.

In fact, Maricle admitted buying votes for a circuit judge candidate in 1983 — though he said he hadn't bought votes since — and Thompson's attorney acknowledged people bribed voters for him in 2002.

But Maricle, Adams and the others argued that they had not bought votes during the time covered in the charges. They also said they didn't band together to rig elections, and in fact had been on opposite sides in some races.

Those charged also said many of the witnesses against them — several of them convicted felons — had reason to lie for prosecutors in hopes of getting help with their own legal troubles.

One key witness for the prosecution was Wanda White's husband, D. Kennon White, who had been city manager of Manchester under his father, Mayor Daugh White, before admitting he extorted $67,000 in kickbacks from Bowling on city contracts.

Kennon and Wanda White had been friends with Maricle, but after they got in trouble they wore hidden tape recorders in 2007 to tape conversations with him and others.

Testimony at the trial indicated that vote-buying has been chronic and widespread in the county, to the point many people saw nothing wrong with it.

After Eugene "Mutton" Lewis, a convicted drug dealer who said he'd bought votes for decades, described a candidate giving him $1,000 and asking for help, a defense attorney asked whether there weren't ways to help a candidate besides buying votes.

"Not that I know of," Lewis responded.

Manchester Mayor Carmen Webb Lewis said there are a lot of good people in Clay County. Election corruption had caused many to become disillusioned with politics, and even to stop voting, but federal agents' work to root out corruption is changing that, she said.

One sign is that there are people running for office this year who wouldn't have before, she said.

"That is kind of uplifting. I think it's wonderful," she said of the investigation, "and so many people do."

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