Breathitt superintendent arrested on federal vote-buying charges

bestep@herald-leader.comMarch 2, 2012 

The top school official in Breathitt County conspired to buy votes in 2010 and lied to an FBI agent about it, a federal grand jury has charged.

Superintendent Arch Turner also tried to persuade a witness to withhold information from authorities about the alleged vote-buying, and even provided the person with a false script of what to say if contacted by authorities, according to the indictment.

"I won't tell on you and you won't tell on me," Turner told the witness, or words to that effect, according to the indictment.

A grand jury in Lexington indicted Turner Thursday, but the document was sealed at first. Turner was arrested Friday and the indictment was unsealed.

Turner, 65, is charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to a federal agent. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Agents from the FBI and Kentucky Attorney General's Office arrested Turner at his office about 9:30 a.m. Friday, according to U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey's office.

Turner's initial court appearance is scheduled Monday. He will be in custody until then, according to Harvey's office.

The federal-court Web site did not list an attorney for Turner Friday afternoon.

Turner was charged federally because he allegedly bought votes in 2010, when there was a race for U.S. Senate on the ballot.

The indictment charges that in October and November 2010, Turner conspired to buy votes and took cash out of his bank account to bribe voters.

On Oct. 27, 2010, Turner allegedly lied to Clay Mason — then an FBI agent and now Lexington's public-safety commissioner — about his activities.

Turner said he had not given anyone money for election purposes in May 2010, when in fact he had given a candidate money to buy votes, according to the indictment.

The third charge against him is that from May 2010 to February 2012, he tried to get someone not to talk to authorities about the alleged illegal activities.

Turner told the person, who was not identified in the indictment, that the FBI had no evidence and that the only way they could get in trouble was if they told on themselves, the indictment said.

The charges against Turner are related to two other cases in which a total of nine people were charged last year with conspiracy and with buying votes.

Those federal indictments said the nine conspired to buy votes in the May 2010 primary in Breathitt County.

Those charged in the two cases are Paula Jean Noble, a school employee; George D. "Bear" Strong, a school-board member; his brother Joseph Strong; Richard L. Turner; Woodrow Glenn Burton; Michael Salyers, who was a candidate for magistrate in 2010; Naomi Johnson; Earl Young; and Jackie Jennings.

Noble also is charged with lying to a federal grand jury.

All initially pleaded not guilty, but Salyers switched his plea to guilty last month.

His plea agreement said Salyers acknowledged someone else gave him several hundred dollars to buy votes in the May 2010 primary. The document didn't say who supplied the cash.

Salyers met with people at a store he owned and made the deal to buy their votes, then sent someone with them to the courthouse during the early voting period to make sure they actually cast a ballot, according to a court document.

The voters would then come back the store to be paid, the court document said.

Mason, the former FBI agent, said the investigation of alleged vote-buying in Breathitt County was sparked by reports from local people about potentially suspicious activity.

There were reports, for instance, about long lines of people waiting to vote at the courthouse during the early-voting period before the May primary.

"It just spiked a big red flag," Mason said.

There also were reports of alleged attempts to pay voters on Election Day, Mason said.

The indictment is the latest legal problem for Turner.

He and three other school-system employees were charged last August with failing to report an allegation of sexual contact between a male teacher and a female student.

School officials have a duty under state law to report such alleged abuse to outside authorities, such as police and state child-welfare workers.

The FBI and the Kentucky Attorney General's Office investigated the case against Turner, which is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor.

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