Former Breathitt schools chief pleads guilty in vote-buying case

jkegley@herald-leader.comJuly 24, 2012 

A former Breathitt County Schools superintendent pleaded guilty Tuesday in federal court to leading a vote-buying conspiracy.

Arch Turner, 66, admitted taking money and distributing it to associates in an attempt to control the outcome of local primary elections in the Eastern Kentucky county in May 2010. Attorneys said the group attempted to buy votes in multiple local races, including magistrate and judge-executive positions.

The vote-buying in the election was part of a fight between two factions for control of the county, according to court documents. Witnesses said they were paid $20 to $75 to vote for a slate of candidates, according to court records.

Turner was the last of 11 conspirators who have pleaded guilty or who have been convicted in federal court, the U.S. Attorney's office said in a news release. Former Breathitt County Sheriff John L. Turner (who is not related to Arch Turner) pleaded guilty last month.

U.S. Attorney Kerry Harvey said after the hearing that the conspiracy was "not a victimless crime" because it potentially affected residents' right to fair elections.

"What Mr. Turner and his cronies sought to do is to subvert that very basic freedom," Harvey said.

Lexington Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason, a former FBI agent, said the case was "very substantial." The Breathitt County vote-buying conspiracy was the last case Mason investigated before retiring from the FBI in January 2011.

"The power that's vested in the superintendent makes them the most influential person in a lot of smaller counties in Kentucky," he said.

Turner, wearing handcuffs and a green Fayette County Detention Center jumpsuit, said little in court. He only answered questions from U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell about his guilty plea and health problems.

Turner told the judge he has been taking "four or five" medications for high blood pressure, cataracts and swelling in his hands and feet, and his attorney said Turner had a pacemaker installed in the last month or so.

Turner was released on bond Tuesday until a sentencing hearing, scheduled for October. The judge set strict conditions for Turner, who had violated his bond previously, according to court records.

Turner had been free on bond after his arrest in March. He was rearrested in May after having improper contact with John Turner, who had not yet pleaded guilty, according to court records. Arch Turner resigned as superintendent at that time.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor, who prosecuted the case, told the judge he did not object to Arch Turner being released again after his guilty plea and the convictions of others in the case.

"I don't think the motive is there for him to contact witnesses at this time," Taylor said.

The judge told Turner he was not to leave Fayette County without permission, and he was not to return to Breathitt County under any circumstances. He was ordered to wear an ankle monitor that tracks his location.

Turner's attorney, Brent Caldwell, said Turner would stay with family in Lexington. He said Turner's primary care doctor was in Lexington, so he had little imperative to leave given his medical conditions.

Caldwell said after the hearing that Turner's medical problems had gotten worse since he was locked up in May. Turner's brother, Jack Turner, said the family was happy that the former superintendent would be released from custody, even just for a few months.

"I think he will feel better," he said.

Arch Turner initially was charged with conspiracy, providing money to buy votes, trying to get a witness not to give information to authorities, and lying to an FBI agent. Under the plea agreement, he pleaded guilty only to one count charging him in the vote-buying conspiracy.

He faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although attorneys recommended that he serve 18 months to two years, Brent Caldwell said. There is no option for probation in federal cases.

Turner is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Oct. 11.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197.Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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