Decades of poverty and vote-buying led to widespread corruption in Clay County

bestep@herald-leader.comNovember 30, 2013 

There was a time when vote fraud was so pervasive in Clay County that a lot of honest people saw no reason to vote, said Ken Bolin, pastor of Manchester Baptist Church.

"They knew it was already bought and paid for," Bolin said of local races.

Vote-buying is deeply rooted in Eastern Kentucky's political culture, helping to make the region a hot spot for federal public-corruption cases.

From 2002 through 2011, there were 237 public-corruption convictions in the federal Eastern District of Kentucky, compared to 65 in the western district, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. It wasn't the first decade in which the eastern half of the state had one of the highest rates of corruption convictions per capita in the United States.

Chronic poverty and cynicism about government help explain the history of vote fraud. Control over scarce jobs by local politicians also has played a role, allowing power brokers to influence elections with cash or threats. And with small populations and many people related through blood or marriage, kinship and friendship have long created potentially compromising relationships between officials and criminals.

Gary W. Potter and Larry K. Gaines, then police-studies professors at Eastern Kentucky University, said in a 1992 paper that 25 of the 28 crime networks they identified in five Eastern Kentucky counties used corrupt relationships with local police and officials in their illegal businesses, which included selling drugs, growing marijuana, and providing gambling and prostitution.

In Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, author Harry Caudill blamed the coal industry for helping to spread a culture of vote-buying.

Coal companies paid to help elect compliant local officials who would keep their taxes low, help stifle union activity and protect the industry in court, Caudill wrote.

Many people had little interest in politics and were willing to sell their vote for a few dollars and some liquor, he said.

"The slush funds amassed by the companies controlled this element of the electorate with tight efficiency," Caudill wrote.

Corruption in voting is not unique to Eastern Kentucky. It has been ingrained in the country's political culture since before the Unites States was founded, University of Kentucky professor Tracy Campbell wrote in Deliver the Vote, his 2005 history of ballot fraud. It has endured because participants came to see cheating as "part of a game that one has to practice in order to counteract one's equally corrupt competitors," Campbell wrote.

Potter researched corruption in Clay County in the early 1990s for a separate paper and concluded that "political bribery, political kickbacks, election fraud, and corrupt campaign practices" were common, and that many public officials benefited directly from the operations of crime networks.

The alleged corruption in the county had long been on the FBI's radar, said David Keller, who started working in the area as an FBI agent in November 1980. Agents couldn't get a toehold, however, in part because local drug dealers wouldn't cooperate. One reason was a vicious undercurrent of violence associated with drugs.

Keller recalled a case from the county in the early 1980s, when someone beheaded a man and threw his body in a pond; many people took the slaying as retaliation for crossing a drug dealer.

"That kind of thing gripped the community," said Keller, who is retired.

People also were reluctant to cooperate with authorities because of the control politicians had over jobs, and because some had ties to drug dealers.

"The community had witnessed too many homes burned, jobs lost, people harassed and unsolved murders to stand up and speak out against the corruption," Melanda Adams, a former drug addict, said in a 2011 letter to U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves.

Several factors ultimately converged to help pry open drug rings in Clay County.

One development was that Congress designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area covering Eastern Kentucky in the late 1990s. That brought more money and investigators to bear on the problem.

Keller said it also helped that federal prosecutors began handling more cases. Potentially long sentences and the absence of parole in the federal system created an incentive for drug-ring insiders to cooperate.

"They knew they were not gonna go down to the local courthouse and weasel their way out of it," Keller said.

Over several years, a task force of local, state and federal officers led by the FBI pursued an investigation in the county, code named CLAYRUPT, leveraging charges against drug dealers to pursue investigations of local officials.

One key figure was pawnshop owner Kenny Day, arrested in 2005 as part of a multi-state drug ring. Police ultimately charged more than 50 people in the case.

Day also had been an election commissioner in Clay County, so he gave authorities information about vote fraud to cut his prison sentence.

Before the investigation ran its course, more than a dozen onetime public officials or election officers in the city and county had been convicted, shaking up the local political structure.

"The stars just lined up to finally clean up Clay County," said Frank Rapier, head of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking area, which helped finance the investigation.

One of those officials was Melanda Adams' father, Douglas C. Adams.

Jurors convicted Douglas Adams after Day and others testified at a 2010 trial that Adams had been involved in vote fraud in a number of elections. But Adams also had worked against drugs.

His motivation for getting involved in the most notorious election at issue in the trial — the bare-knuckle 2002 primary for county clerk — was that the incumbent, Jennings B. White, had been protecting drug dealers, Adams' attorneys said.

Adams wanted White out "for the sake of saving his daughter and a lot of other people" Kristen Logan said.

The candidate Adams backed in 2002 beat White, who later went to prison after admitting that he laundered money for a drug dealer while in office.

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