Former Clay officials get long sentences in massive vote-buying case

Six others await sentencing

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 9, 2011 

William E. Stivers, an election officer in Clay County. Several prominent officials in Clay County schemed to buy votes in the May 2004 primary election, a federal grand jury has alleged. Photo provided by the Laurel County Detention Center

FRANKFORT — Two former Clay County election officials received long prison sentences Tuesday for their roles in a vote-buying conspiracy that a federal judge said was astonishing in its scope.

U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves sentenced Charles Wayne Jones, 71, to 20 years in prison and William E. Stivers, 58, to 241⁄3 years.

Those decisions signal the potential for similar long sentences for some of the six others convicted with Jones and Stivers last year.

Those people, including former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle and former school Superintendent Douglas Adams, also will be sentenced this week.

Jurors convicted the eight of using Clay County's election board as a tool to corrupt elections in 2002, '04 and '06 by buying or stealing votes on a scale that Reeves said he hadn't seen in any other case.

The goal was to gain and keep power, enriching themselves and others, prosecutors argued.

There was testimony at the trial about candidates pooling hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy votes in the southeastern Kentucky county, one of the poorest in the nation.

Reeves noted various public officials abused their positions to further a scheme that caused great damage.

"This is corruption at all levels of government, and there's no excuse for it," Reeves said.

Those convicted with Jones, Stivers, Maricle and Adams were Freddy Thompson, the county clerk during part of the conspiracy; Stanley Bowling, who was a magistrate; Bart Morris, who owned a garbage company that got county and city contracts; and his wife Debra Morris.

They were convicted last March after a seven-week trial and have been jailed since.

Paul Bishop, an election officer originally charged in the case, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.

Stivers was an officer at a polling place during part of the conspiracy, and Jones was the county's Democratic election commissioner.

The sentencing range for Stivers, based on advisory guidelines, was 24 years and four months to 30 years and five months.

However, his attorney, Robert L. Abell of Lexington, sought a sentence of less than 20 years because of Stivers' age and serious health problems.

But the prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen C. Smith, said Stivers can get adequate treatment in prison.

Smith said Stivers played a key role as an enforcer in the conspiracy, recruiting candidates, collecting money to buy votes, coaching poll workers how to buy or steal votes, and, at times, threatening people.

Stivers hit a city council candidate in the face with a gun in 2004 and, after being charged, tried to get two people to lie about a potential prosecution witness, Smith said.

"He's going to represent the strong arm of the organization," Smith said.

The main charge on which Stivers and the others were convicted — essentially, taking part in organized crime — carried a maximum sentence of 20 years.

However, all were also convicted of other charges, such as money-laundering and vote fraud.

Reeves stacked penalties from other charges to reach a sentence of 24 years and four months for Stivers.

Jones, a retired state employee, was facing a similar sentence, with a guideline range of 19 years and seven months to 24 years and five months in prison.

However, his attorney, T. Scott White of Lexington, sought a lesser sentence for Jones because of his age and serious health problems.

Jones has a heart condition, diabetes and other health problems, according to White's motion.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Parman argued Jones should be sentenced to more time in prison than Stivers because Jones had more of a role in the vote-buying conspiracy.

Jones recruited people into the scheme, coached two election officers how to change voters' choices on the voting machines in 2006 and used his position on the election board to further the conspiracy, Parman said.

"This is an organized attempt by a group of individuals to control the entire structure of the county," Parman said.

Parman also said Jones, who was convicted in a federal marijuana case in the 1990s, had a link to drug traffickers, which was important because drug money was used to buy votes.

Reeves said it was clear Jones had a key role in the conspiracy but his age and health problems justified a shorter sentence than Stivers received.

Jones and Stivers, wearing orange jail jumpsuits and leg chains, did not speak in court.

Abell and White said both men would appeal their convictions.

The sentencing hearings this week are the latest phase of a long-running federal investigation in Clay County.

Several other prominent residents were convicted earlier on vote-fraud and corruption charges, including a two-term county clerk, a longtime Manchester mayor, city council members, an assistant police chief and magistrates.

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