Former Breathitt schools chief gets two years in prison for vote-buying

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 13, 2012 

Breathitt County school Superintendent Arch Turner. Source: The Times-Voice

The former top school administrator in Breathitt County was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison and fined $250,000 for his role in directing a vote-buying scheme as two factions wrestled for local political control.

Arch Turner, 66, pleaded guilty to a charge that he conspired to buy votes in the 2010 primary election in the county and passed out money to bribe voters.

The potential prison term for Turner was 18 to 24 months under advisory guidelines. U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell gave Turner the maximum sentence in that range. She hammered Turner with a fine more than six times the top figure calculated under the guidelines, which outlined a fine range of $4,000 to $40,000.

The judge said Turner deserved a harsh fine — one designed not only to punish him, but to deter similar conduct and promote respect for the law — because he took part in a "cynical and egregious" effort to corrupt the democratic process.

"Free and fair elections are essential at every level," Caldwell told Turner.

The judge said Turner also engaged in a heavy-handed attempt to thwart the investigation.

Turner, who had power over many jobs in the poor county, threatened people and pushed others to lie to authorities, Caldwell said.

The judge noted one witness tearfully said in court he went along with Turner in order to secure a school job for his daughter-in-law.

Caldwell also ordered Turner to pay a special assessment of $1,000 and to perform 120 hours of community service after prison, perhaps speaking to groups about the ills of vote fraud.

She ordered Turner taken to jail from the courtroom.

Turner, who became Breathitt County superintendent in 2005, headed a faction fighting for political control in the May 2010 primary, according to court documents.

Witnesses said they received up to $75 to vote for a slate of candidates.

Some voters who took payoffs said they falsely claimed to be disabled, which allowed people involved in the fraud to go into the voting booth with them and make sure they voted as they had promised, according to court documents.

John Turner, a former county sheriff involved in the scheme, said Arch Turner gave him cash to buy votes, then called him and others to a meeting at an elementary school and had him give some of the money to another vote-buyer for use in a specific precinct.

The state attorney general's office and the FBI began investigating the election after an unusually large number of votes came in during the early balloting period, which can indicate fraud.

Authorities received reports that people were lined up outside the courthouse during early voting, and tips about people offering to pay voters on Election Day, said Clay Mason, a former FBI agent who investigated.

"It was a series of really brazen circumstances that really brought it to our attention," said Mason, who is now Lexington's public-safety commissioner.

The case ultimately led to convictions against a dozen people, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor, who handled the cases.

Arch Turner was charged with conspiracy, lying to the FBI and trying to get others to lie.

"I won't tell on you and you won't tell on me," is essentially what he told one person in the scheme, according to the indictment.

In court Tuesday, Turner's attorney, Brent Caldwell, said the former superintendent had a "stellar career" in education in the county, spending many years as a teacher and administrator before becoming superintendent. Student test scores improved on Turner's watch, Caldwell said.

Brent Caldwell acknowledged that vote-buying has been a pernicious problem in Eastern Kentucky, and said Turner knows he made a serious mistake.

Turner did not benefit financially from the vote fraud, however, and ended up losing his career, Brent Caldwell said.

"He shouldn't have been playing around in this game, but he did," he said.

Judge Karen Caldwell noted Turner had many advantages, including a stable upbringing, a college education and a high salary, and hadn't suffered the type of problems that land many people in the federal criminal system, such as substance abuse.

Turner, who will have a comfortable retirement at taxpayer expense, could afford a "punitive" fine, Karen Caldwell said.

Turner cannot appeal his guilty plea, but could appeal his sentence. He will consider doing so, said Brent Caldwell.

U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said after the sentencing that authorities are seeing more willingness by citizens to report vote fraud — a reflection, in part, of seeing that if they do so, there will be results.

Federal and state authorities have long made vote fraud a focus of their efforts, and will continue to do so, Harvey said.

"We'll be there every election," he said.

Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1.

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