Magoffin County Judge-Executive Charles “Doc” Hardin has been a part of efforts to buy votes for years, a key witness testified Tuesday as a federal vote-buying trial for four others got underway.
And in opening arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said Hardin is an unindicted co-conspirator in a scheme to corrupt the 2014 elections through vote-buying.
“This crime goes to the very foundation of our democratic system,” Taylor told jurors.
Hardin, a Democrat, is not charged in the current case and has consistently denied being involved in vote fraud.
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Those on trial are Magistrate Gary “Rooster” Risner; his wife, Tami Jo Risner; Larry Shepherd, chief deputy county court clerk in the office held by his wife, Clerk Renee Arnett Shepherd; and Mason Daniels.
They are charged with conspiring to buy votes in the 2014 primary and general elections for candidates that included Hardin, Risner, Renee Shepherd and Sheriff Carson Montgomery, Taylor said.
A fifth person, Scotty L. McCarty, was charged with them but pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor vote-fraud charge and gave information to authorities.
Taylor told jurors that there has been a history of vote fraud in Magoffin County, with candidates pooling their money to buy votes for a slate of candidates.
Taylor said the vote-buyers preyed on people who have drug problems or were unemployed or uneducated to sell their votes — vulnerable people who are apolitical and “will vote for anybody that hands money to them.”
Hardin is a political “boss” who gets slates of candidates together, Taylor said.
Hardin also allegedly has put up money for vote buying. McCarty testified Risner told him Hardin gave $30,000 to buy votes in 2010, while Larry and Renee Shepherd put in $10,000.
Renee Shepherd has not been charged, and there are no charges from 2010 against her husband and the others in the current case.
However, U.S. District Judge Danny C. Reeves ruled prosecutors can present evidence about earlier alleged crimes to help explain the background of the alleged 2014 conspiracy.
In 2014, Risner handled the money for the conspiracy, while his wife and Daniels recruited vote-sellers and Shepherd used his position to further the scheme, Taylor said.
McCarty testified that he worked as an officer at the Carty Branch precinct in several elections to carry out vote-fraud schemes.
In 2008, for instance, Risner wanted him to get extra votes for a man named John Sizemore running for state representative, McCarty said.
McCarty said he put an extra 60 votes on the machine for Sizemore, moving a penny from his left pocket to his right pocket each time to keep track of the number.
When the polls closed, he took the precinct log sheet — which voters sign before casting ballots — to Risner’s house, where Risner signed the names of 60 voters who hadn’t showed up that day, covering the extra votes, McCarty said.
In 2010, members of the scheme used a system of blue and red tickets to keep track of people who sold their vote for $50, McCarty said.
McCarty also said he manipulated the voting machine to alter the votes of some people who had not taken payments.
“We used a lot of tactics,” he said.
McCarty said he took part in fraud in 2012 to get votes for Democratic state Rep. John Short and Walter Whitaker, an unsuccessful candidate for circuit clerk.
McCarty said that Democrats and Republicans work together on vote-buying in the county. There were elections in which all four officers at the precinct where he worked — two from each party — were corrupt, he said.
Defense attorneys disputed the government’s case.
Tami Risner’s attorney, Willis Coffey, said the memory of some vote sellers who will testify against the defendants is suspect because of their drug abuse.
He also said another woman actually bought the votes listed in charges against Risner, but that witnesses are lying to protect her.
Daniels attorney, Joseph Lane, said Daniels was not involved in the conspiracy and that prosecution witnesses have told inconsistent stories.
Larry Shepherd did not take part in vote-buying in the elections at issue, said his attorney, Jason Nemes.
And Gary Risner’s attorney, Michael Curtis, questioned McCarty’s truthfulness, suggesting he has a reason to lie in order to get a deal for lenient treatment.
“He comes not with clean hands, but with unclean hands because he’s trying to save himself,” Curtis told jurors.