14 Indicted in Election-Fraud Scandal in Virginia
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
There is a big corruption scandal in the small town of Appalachia, in southwestern Virginia. The town's mayor and thirteen others are charged in a sweeping indictment that says Mayor Ben Cooper conspired to take control of the town by buying and stealing votes in the town council election in 2004. Cooper was reelected to the council, which then named him mayor.
Prosecutors say the defendants bought votes with beer, cigarettes, and pork rinds. In one scheme, the defendants allegedly stole absentee ballots and forged signatures. In another scheme, voters at polling places were escorted into voting booths by some of the defendants, who allegedly pulled the lever for them.
Once Ben Cooper was installed as mayor, prosecutors say more crimes were committed. Kathy Still is covering the story for the Bristol Herald Courier.
KATHY STILL: The Mayor allegedly used his new power to retaliate against some of his enemies. He was in charge of the police department. Prosecutors say that he would send officers out to search homes of some of his enemies and then the officers would often take property or televisions, money, from these suspects and then use it for their own personal use.
BLOCK: How did investigators learn about what was allegedly going on here?
STILL: After the election, some of the people who lost the race learned that some people in one of the public housing units were going around saying that some people had offered them tobacco, cigarettes, and even a bag of pork rinds to vote their way. And that kind of got some people suspicious and then they took the issue to authorities. And that got everything started.
BLOCK: And you had the special prosecutor in this case, Tim McAfee, yesterday saying, this is not about pork rinds. In other words, this is much more serious than that.
STILL: Exactly. The pork rinds issue is kind of an embarrassment for the town. The prosecutor even said that the tale about the pork rinds would not even have risen to the level of criminal conduct. It was that insignificant. But it did get everything else moving. Got the investigation going.
BLOCK: Well what happens in Appalachia? You have a mayor and thirteen other people there under indictment. Does he stay mayor while this is all being prosecuted?
STILL: Under Virginia law, he hasn't been convicted, so he is allowed to keep his seat until the trial and, you know, depending on the outcome of the trial.
BLOCK: What are people saying about that in Appalachia?
STILL: It depends on which side you're on. Mayor Cooper still has a lot of supporters. Some people believe that he came in and actually cleared up some problems they had with audits and other booking snafus that cost the town some money early on. But you have others who think that he micromanages things and abuses his power. So it really depends on what side you're on.
BLOCK: Is it the kind of thing where supporters of the mayor would say he's been set up?
STILL: I don't think they'll say that, because I think the attitude is that this has probably been going on for years, and the investigation just nabbed these people.
BLOCK: That this is par for the course?
STILL: That that's what a lot of them are saying.
BLOCK: Boy, it just seems like a big mess.
STILL: Yeah it is, it's a mess. I had one town resident tell me yesterday it makes it seem like the whole town should be on the Jerry Springer Show. It's a different situation down there now.
It's a close-knit community. Everyone can be seen on Friday night sitting there at the football game together. But politics, that's the other context for it these days.
BLOCK: There is a coincidence here, which is that this indictment was announced yesterday, on Thursday. The town of Appalachia is celebrating its 100th birthday today.
STILL: It sure is. It's a festive occasion down there. But I'm not sure what the mood will be tonight when they have their parade. You know, it'll be different, I'm sure.
BLOCK: Well what happens now?
STILL: The fourteen that were indicted will be arraigned on March the 14th, and the Prosecutors also made it clear that this isn't the end, this is just Chapter 1. I expect there'll be more indictments coming in later dates against other people as this investigation goes forward.
BLOCK: Well Kathy Still, thanks for talking with us.
STILL: Oh, anytime. Thanks.
BLOCK: Kathy Still is a reporter with the Bristol Herald Courier. We were talking about the indictment of the Mayor of Appalachia, Virginia and thirteen others on 269 counts of election fraud and conspiracy.
This is NPR, National Public Radio.