NYTimes.com Article: Where Prosecutors Say Votes Are Sold

From: Arthur Keller <arthur_at_kellers_dot_org>
Date: Sun Aug 29 2004 - 13:02:25 CDT

The article below from NYTimes.com

Where Prosecutors Say Votes Are Sold

August 29, 2004
  By JAMES DAO

LONDON, Ky., Aug. 26 - It was not so long ago, historians
say, that some voting places in eastern Kentucky were
virtual vote-buying bazaars. Brokers bartered half pints of
whiskey and $10 bills for votes just outside polling
station doors. The cheap ones could be bought for beer. The
smart voters always sold twice.

Those brazen days are gone. But, prosecutors and political
experts say, the mountain tradition of vote-selling is not.
And in a wide-ranging conspiracy trial that opened here
this week, federal prosecutors are contending that
influential people still try to buy elections in eastern
Kentucky, just in more artful ways.

At the heart of the case is a coal miner's son turned
wealthy coal mine operator named Ross Harris, one of
eastern Kentucky's most prominent political fund-raisers.
Judges, sheriffs and legislators call him friend,
particularly when they call him for money. Critics say he
uses his fortune to bully opponents.

Prosecutors contend that in the fall of 2002, Mr. Harris
funneled $41,000 in illegal contributions to the campaign
of John Doug Hays, a candidate for a Pike County district
judgeship. The money financed a vote-buying scheme
disguised as a program to pay people $50 each to transport,
or haul, voters to the polls, the prosecutors contend.

"There was no systematic plan for hauling," Kenneth Taylor,
an assistant United States attorney, told jurors this week.
"It was a ruse."

Mr. Harris and his nine co-defendants have pleaded not
guilty, arguing that the people who received $50 checks
really did drive voters to the polls. State law allows
campaigns to pay for "vote hauling," a practice that began
decades ago when many poor and elderly voters in isolated
hollows lacked transportation.

"It can't be a plan to use vote-hauling to buy votes if
voters were, in fact, hauled," Larry A. Mackey, Mr.
Harris's lawyer, said in his opening remarks. "There may
not be many states where it is legal, but it is in
Kentucky."

Only Mr. Harris and one of his employees, Loren Glenn
Turner, are currently on trial. The other eight defendants,
including Mr. Hays, are scheduled for trial in October.

The Harris case is one of several in Kentucky and West
Virginia that prosecutors say confirm longstanding
suspicions that vote-buying remains common in Appalachia.

Last year, Donnie Newsome, the judge-executive of Knott
County in eastern Kentucky, was convicted of buying votes
for $50 to $100 a piece in a 1998 primary race. He has been
sentenced to 26 months in prison.

Seeking to reduce his sentence, Mr. Newsome has agreed to
testify that Mr. Harris gave him about $20,000 in cash for
his re-election campaign in 2002. Mr. Harris's lawyers say
Mr. Newsome is lying in exchange for leniency.

In West Virginia, Johnny Mendez, the sheriff of Logan
County, pleaded guilty last month to federal charges that
he accepted $10,000 in illegal contributions and used the
money to buy votes in 2000 and 2004.

Vote fraud, of course, is a fact of life in many places. In
Kentucky, it ruined the career of Edward F. Prichard Jr., a
former law clerk to Justice Felix Frankfurter of the
Supreme Court who was widely seen as a future governor. Mr.
Prichard was sentenced to two years for stuffing ballot
boxes in 1948. He later distinguished himself as an
education reformer.

In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, one of the poorest
regions of the country, vote fraud has most often taken the
form of vote-buying, experts said.

"It is basically conceded in Kentucky that people have a
constitutional right to sell their vote," a former
assistant state attorney general was quoted by Larry J.
Sabato, the political scientist, in his book, "Dirty Little
Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in America
Politics."

Gordon McKinney, director of the Appalachian Center at
Berea College, said vote-buying became common in the early
1900's when an emerging class of coal, timber and railroad
barons sought to break the power of local party bosses.

"They wanted control at the county level because that's
where their business was," he said. "They began directly to
buy votes. And they won."

The system has evolved and adapted, he said, but remains
the same in many ways.

In the Hays campaign, prosecutors contend, 686 people were
sent $50 checks and sample ballots showing how to vote:
with huge X's next to Mr. Hays's name. No other
instructions were needed, the prosecutors say. "This is
what we call a wink-and-nod conspiracy," Mr. Taylor, the
assistant United States attorney, said.

In a taped conversation played for jurors, Tom Varney, a
supporter of Mr. Hays, tells a woman that vote-hauling is
"a figure of speech" and warns, "If anybody ever asks you,
don't tell them its buying votes."

Defense lawyers say that Mr. Varney gave the woman $50 to
buy a coat and that his words were taken out of context.

Prosecutors also called a witness who said he received
money for vote-hauling even though he could not drive
because of a diabetic condition. Another witness said that
although he was paid to drive voters to polls, he was not
told whom to transport, and made no effort to find out.

But both of those witnesses said no one told them that the
checks were to buy their votes - even though they had
signed affidavits saying as much several months before.

Mr. Mackey, Mr. Harris's lawyer, said the government had no
evidence linking Mr. Harris to illegal contributions or
vote-buying.

The prosecution will also have trouble convincing jurors
that anything wrong occurred, he argued, since almost all
eastern Kentucky politicians pay for vote-hauling.

"Some say this is legislation through prosecution," Mr.
Mackey said. "It clearly could have a chilling effect on a
long-term, historical and widely accepted practice in
eastern Kentucky."

Indeed, attempts to ban vote-hauling have been blocked over
the years by legislators from eastern Kentucky, including
Gregory D. Stumbo, a Democrat who was the House floor
leader for over a decade and is now the state's attorney
general.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Stumbo said he considered
vote-hauling a useful method of getting disabled or
disadvantaged voters to the polls, provided it is done
legally.

Even if the prosecution can demonstrate the Hays campaign's
vote-hauling was really vote-buying, it may face another
obstacle: the perception among at least some eastern
Kentucky residents that vote-buying is not a serious crime.

Concerns that jurors would be too sympathetic toward, or
easily intimidated by, the defendants caused Judge Karen K.
Caldwell of Federal District Court to move the trial from
Pikeville to London, 90 miles away.

F. Chris Gorman, the state's attorney general from 1992 to
1996, said he was once threatened when he called for
cracking down on vote-buying in eastern Kentucky. Mr.
Gorman, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Stumbo last
year, called for banning vote-hauling during the campaign.

"We tried to prosecute some vote-buying cases while I was
attorney general, and it was very difficult to get a guilty
conviction in eastern Kentucky," he said. "It's so
ingrained in the culture."

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/national/29kentucky.html?ex=1094800640&ei=1&en=713581a9defefaaa

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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