Final four defendants sentenced to time served in Clay County corruption case

bestep@herald-leader.comApril 23, 2014 

Twelve years after the chaotic, corrupt election at the heart of a federal investigation that toppled prominent Clay County politicians, the final four people to be sentenced received no additional prison time during a hearing Wednesday.

The four pleaded guilty to racketeering, admitting they took part in buying votes on a large scale in 2002.

"The conduct to which you have now admitted is disgraceful and is shameful," U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell said during the hearing.

However, Caldwell did not send the four to prison because they had already served three years and four months after being convicted in 2010. Those convictions were overturned last year, leading to further hearings in the case which culminated in Wednesday's decision.

The four sentenced were former Magistrate Stanley Bowling; Charles Wayne Jones, who was a Democrat county election commissioner; Bart Morris, who runs a garbage-hauling company; and his wife, Debra.

Caldwell added 180 days home incarceration to Jones' sentence.

The four were convicted with former Clay County Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle; former Clay County Schools Superintendent Doug Adams; former Clay County Clerk Freddy W. Thompson, and William Stivers, a former county election officer.

Caldwell earlier sentenced those four to the 40 months they'd already served, though she added a period of home incarceration for Maricle, Adams and Stivers.

The eight were initially accused of conspiring to use the county election board as a tool to buy or steal votes in local races in 2002, 2004 and 2006 — appointing corrupt precinct officers to help — so they could hold on to power and enrich themselves and associates through jobs and contracts.

Candidates, including those charged in the scheme and others, pooled hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy votes in 2002, in one of the poorest counties in the nation.

That election was chaotic.

One candidate said gunshots were fired into his home, while his opponent shot up his own van to get sympathy. A self-styled private investigator who had dug up dirt on the incumbent county clerk, Jennings B. White, said he was shot from ambush, and the county sheriff closed the polls twice during early voting, allegedly to thwart vote-buying against an ally.

Over the next eight years, FBI investigations in Clay County resulted in convictions against more than a dozen one-time officials and election officers from both political parties on corruption, drug or vote-buying charges.

A number of other prominent people were named as unindicted co-conspirators.

Maricle, Adams and the six people charged with them were convicted in 2010, but a federal appeals panel threw out the convictions last July, ruling they did not get a fair trial because jurors had been allowed to hear prosecution evidence that should not have been admitted.

When the case came back to the lower court, the eight defendants ultimately pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge related only to the 2002 election, eliminating charges that had led to sentences of more than 20 years for some after the first trial.

Defense attorneys argued that Adams and others had banded together in 2002 to back Thompson in order to get rid of Jennings White, who had helped promote a crippling culture of drug abuse and corruption in the county.

The attorneys acknowledged the people trying to get rid of White bought votes, but said it was the only way to counter White's corruption.

"There was no way that incumbent Jennings White, an accomplished vote-buyer from an entrenched family, could be defeated unless votes were bought on behalf of Freddy Thompson," Thompson's attorney, Russell Baldani, said in one court motion.

Prosecutors, however, argued the ends did not justify the means. "The racketeering enterprise in this case . . . stole democracy from the people for the sake of a few," Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason D. Parman said in a motion.

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

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