Judge rejects attempts to plead guilty in alleged Clay County vote-buying conspiracy

Judges Karl S. Forester and Karen K. Caldwell congratulated each of the 44 immigrants who received their naturalized citizenship on Friday August 5, 2005 at the John C. Watts Federal Building in Frankfort, Ky.   Brett Marshall/Staff
Judges Karl S. Forester and Karen K. Caldwell congratulated each of the 44 immigrants who received their naturalized citizenship on Friday August 5, 2005 at the John C. Watts Federal Building in Frankfort, Ky. Brett Marshall/Staff LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

Four of the remaining five people charged in an alleged vote-buying conspiracy in Clay County planned to plead guilty Thursday, but a federal judge rejected the pleas.

The proposed deals would have allowed the four to appeal issues related to the racketeering charge against them, despite admitting guilt.

U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell said she had a problem with that, in part because it would require appeals judges to make a decision based on evidence from a previous trial that those judges had decided was unfair.

The appeals court could have refused to do that, sending the case back to the federal district court in Lexington a second time to resolve the issues, adding time and cost to the case.

"I really don't know that justice would be served if I accepted them," Caldwell said of the pleas during a hearing.

Caldwell also said she did not like the fact that the pleas included a provision requiring her to impose sentences the defendants had agreed to, rather than giving her leeway to hear evidence and decide on a sentence she thought was just.

Although Caldwell declined to accept the pleas, said she appreciated that attorneys in the case had labored to resolve the charges.

There is potential that prosecutors and defense attorneys could work out new plea agreements.

Caldwell set a Nov. 7 deadline for any new proposed pleas.

The trial in the case had been set to begin next Monday. The judge moved it back to Nov. 18 to give attorneys more time to prepare, given that most had planned to resolve the case without a trial.

Those who had planned to plead guilty Thursday were former Clay County school Superintendent Doug Adams; former county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson; Charles Wayne Jones, who was a commissioner on the county election board; and William Stivers, who was a precinct worker.

Only former Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle had planned to go to trial Monday, for a second time.

The unusual day in court was the latest development in one of the largest public-corruption cases in Kentucky in recent years.

Maricle; Adams; Thompson; Jones; Stivers; former Magistrate Stanley Bowling; Bart Morris, who operated a garbage-hauling business; and Morris' wife, Debra, were charged with taking part in a conspiracy to buy or steal votes in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections.

The eight were charged with using the county election board as a tool to carry out the scheme — in part by appointing corrupt election officers — so that they could get power, jobs and contracts.

At their first trial in 2010, witnesses testified vote-buying had been common and widespread in the county for decades, with politicians sometimes pooling staggering sums of money to bribe voters.

Maricle, Adams and the others strongly denied that they were part of a common scheme, pointing out some of them backed competing candidates in the elections in question.

However, prosecutors argued that all of them schemed to corrupt elections using a common vehicle.

Jurors convicted all eight and ruled they were jointly liable for a $3.2 million judgment, based on the jobs and contracts they received as a result of taking part in illegal acts.

A panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the convictions in July, however.

The appeals judges ruled that U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves allowed prosecutors to present evidence during the 2010 trial that should not have been admitted, meaning the eight did not get a fair trial.

Caldwell took over the case after that.

Bowling and Bart and Debra Morris pleaded guilty in September rather than go to trial again.

Bowling and Bart Morris said they met with Maricle before the 2002 primary and that Maricle gave Bowling $1,000 to use in bribing voters in his race for magistrate.

The Morrises also acknowledged paying voters at their house after the people had cast ballots for the candidates they were supposed to support.

The five people still in the case all face a racketeering charge. That is the only remaining charge against Adams, the former school superintendent.

The other four also face charges that they conspired to buy votes and oppress voting rights. Maricle and Stivers face an additional charge that they told a witness to lie to a federal grand jury, and Thompson faces a charge that he lied to the grand jury.

All five have challenged various aspects of the racketeering charge. One defense argument is that the alleged illegal enterprise did not affect interstate commerce as required under the law.

Those are the arguments the defendants wanted to preserve for appeal.

If they had won on appeal, the most serious remaining charge against them would have been thrown out.

However, Caldwell said it is her duty to decide the soundness of the racketeering charge.

The case involving Maricle and Adams capped a federal investigation in which several other public officials in Manchester and Clay County were convicted on drug or corruption charges.

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