Politics & Government

Five remaining defendants in Clay County vote-fraud case plead guilty

Former Clay County Circuit Judge Cletus Maricle.  Photo provided.
Former Clay County Circuit Judge Cletus Maricle. Photo provided. ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE OF COURTS

The five remaining defendants in a case alleging widespread vote fraud in Clay County pleaded guilty Wednesday, capping a long-running investigation in which some of the most prominent officials in the county went to prison.

Those who pleaded guilty were longtime Circuit Judge R. Cletus Maricle, 70; two-term county Clerk Freddy W. Thompson, 50; Douglas C. Adams, 62, who was county school superintendent from 1999 to 2009; Charles Wayne Jones, 74, who had been an election commissioner; and William E. Stivers, 61, a former precinct worker.

Former Magistrate Stanley Bowling; Bart Morris, who owned a garbage-hauling business; and his wife, Debra Morris, pleaded guilty in the case in September.

The eight were charged with being part of a racketeering conspiracy to use the county Board of Elections as a tool to buy or steal votes — by appointing corrupt precinct workers, for instance — in the 2002, 2004 and 2006 elections.

Witnesses at a 2010 trial in the case said candidates pooled hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy votes as part of the scheme, with power, jobs and contracts as the prizes. A jury convicted the eight of all charges against them in 2010.

However, a federal appeals panel ruled this year that U.S. District Judge Danny Reeves, who presided over that trial, allowed prosecutors to present evidence that should not have been given to jurors. The appeals panel said the eight had not gotten a fair trial and voided the convictions.

Chief U.S. District Judge Karen K. Caldwell, who took the case after the appeals verdict, had scheduled a new trial to begin Nov. 18 for the five who had not yet pleaded guilty.

On Wednesday, prosecutors and defense attorneys finalized agreements for the five to plead guilty to the main racketeering charge. The defendants had challenged that charge on a number of grounds.

U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey said it was important the case preserved that charge as a precedent that can be used in other vote-fraud cases if necessary.

It was not clear whether Maricle would enter a guilty plea until Wednesday afternoon.

Attorneys for the other four filed motions saying they would admit guilt, but Maricle had not done so before the start of a hearing for Adams and the others.

After the other four pleaded guilty, however, the former judge's attorney, David Hos kins, told Caldwell he was "furiously negotiating" with prosecutors to hammer out a deal.

Caldwell took a recess while Maricle, Hoskins and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason D. Parman left the courtroom and worked out a deal, then took Maricle's plea.

The other seven people charged in the case could have been witnesses against Maricle had he gone to trial.

Maricle admitted that in 2004 he gave cash to Vernon Hacker, a city council member in Manchester, to use in buying votes.

The others acknowledged using the Board of Elections to "corruptly influence" the outcome of the 2002 election by bribing voters.

Their pleas noted that an excavation company run by Bowling and the garbage-hauling company of Bart and Debra Morris got contracts — including some funded with federal money — through their participation in the scheme.

That use of federal money was important because the racketeering charge required an impact on interstate commerce.

All eight people convicted in the case will receive considerably lesser sentences under their plea deals than at their trial.

For instance, Reeves sentenced Maricle to 26 years and eight months, but the maximum sentence under his new agreement is seven years and three months . The deal allows him to argue for a lower sentence.

All the defendants served at least three years and four months before the appeals court overturned their initial convictions. That means if Caldwell sentences Maricle to 87 months, he would have three years and 11 months left to serve, with the potential to reduce that through good conduct.

There is no parole in the federal court system, but people may earn a 15 percent reduction in their sentences.

Adams, who was sentenced to 24 years and five months in prison after the trial, faces a new maximum sentence of six years and three months.

Thompson's new maximum sentence will be five years and six months, down from 12 years and six months. Jones' initial sentence was 20 years; his new maximum will be five years and nine months, while Stivers faces a sentence of up to six years, compared to the more than 24 years he received after the trial.

Bowling and the Morrises also will receive less prison time based on their pleas.

Caldwell scheduled sentencing hearings for February.

Adams and Stivers had been imprisoned even after the appeals decision, but Caldwell released them Wednesday.

The guilty pleas were the final chapter in an investigation led by the FBI that spanned years and upended the local political structure.

More than a dozen one-time public officials or election officers — Republicans and Democrats alike — ultimately pleaded guilty to corruption or vote-buying charges, including a longtime mayor of Manchester, an assistant police chief, city council members, a one-time city administrator and county magistrates.

Harvey said Wednesday that it was outrageous the people charged in the case disenfranchised their neighbors through vote fraud. It's important that they went before a judge and admitted guilt, Harvey said.

"We know today that the jury in the first trial got it right," he said. "These folks are guilty."

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