Three plead guilty in Clay County vote-buying conspiracy

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 5, 2013 

Three people have admitted taking part in a wide-ranging scheme to buy votes in Clay County, and they could become witnesses against others charged in the case.

Former county Magistrate Stanley Bowling and Bart and Debra Morris, who are married, pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of taking part in a racketeering conspiracy.

Five others still face charges in the case.

They are former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle; former school Superintendent Douglas Adams; former county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson; Charles Wayne Jones, who was a Democratic election commissioner; and William Stivers, who was a precinct worker.

The eight were charged with using the county election board as a tool to corrupt local elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006 so they could control county politics and get jobs and contracts for themselves and friends.

Participants in the conspiracy allegedly oversaw spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy votes in one of the nation's poorest counties.

All eight were convicted in March 2010 and went to prison, but the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned their convictions in July.

The appeals judges ruled that U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves allowed prosecutors to present evidence during the trial that should not have been admitted, meaning the eight did not get a fair trial.

U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell, who later took over the case, scheduled a new trial for the eight in October, but Bowling and the Morrises opted to plead guilty.

Prosecutors could now subpoena them as witnesses against the remaining defendants in the case.

As insiders in the alleged conspiracy, their testimony could be a plus for prosecutors.

The plea deals for the three call for substantially lower sentences than they received after the 2010 trial.

Bart Morris, 54, who owned a garbage-hauling company that had contracts with Manchester and Clay County, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2010; his new sentence would be five years and six months if Caldwell accepts the plea deal.

Morris and the others convicted in the case had all served at least 40 months before the appeals court decision.

Federal prisoners can get a 15 percent sentence reduction for good conduct, so with that, Bart Morris would have less than two years left to serve.

Debra Morris, 54, would receive a 40-month sentence, down from 10 years initially. That means she would not have to return to prison under her plea deal.

Bowling's sentence would drop to five years and six months, down from 15 years and 10 months.

The government has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property from the eight because the jury ruled they were jointly liable for a judgment of more than $3 million, based on the salaries and contracts they were able to get.

That forfeiture would not change for the Morrises under their pleas, but Bowling, 63, who had an excavating business, would get money back under his deal.

The government has taken property from Bowling worth more than the $135,656 he has to forfeit under his deal.

Caldwell allowed the three to remain free on bond until their sentencing in December, when she will announce whether she will accept the plea deals. The judge is not required to accept the plea deals, but it would be unusual for her to reject them.

Defense attorneys and prosecutors feel the plea arrangements are reasonable and fair, said Elizabeth S. Hughes, Debra Morris' attorney.

The case involving the eight capped an FBI investigation that crippled the longtime power structure in Manchester and Clay County.

A number of officials, including a longtime mayor of Manchester, an assistant police chief, city council members, the local 911 director, a one-time city administrator, a county clerk and several magistrates pleaded guilty to vote-fraud, drug or corruption charges in a series of related cases.

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

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