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Election Brings New Candidates To Corruption-Plagued Mingo County

May 9, 1988 GMT

WILLIAMSON, W.Va. (AP) _ Voters on Tuesday will shape the future of Mingo County, a poor backwater once so corrupt a fire chief ran a drug ″carry-out″ and a sheriff allegedly helped protect the business.

″It’s up to the people this time,″ said Michael Thornsbury, a Williamson lawyer and first-time candidate who is running for the state House of Delegates. ″They can choose the old way, or they can take the best opportunity they’ve had to vote good, honest candidates into office.″

Tales of corruption prompted voters to sweep incumbents out of the county courthouse in 1986. This year, most of the old guard - many under indictment - didn’t bother to run.

Even so, voters will have a wide choice.

Fifty political novices are among the 69 candidates who filed for 12 offices, which include the legislature, county commission and sheriff.

In 1986, voters ousted long-time Democratic party boss Johnie Owens and his slate of candidates in favor of those backed by Owens’ enemy, Larry Hamrick.

Then in January 1987, an out-of-county judge and prosecutor specially appointed by the state Supreme Court launched a grand jury investigation into county politics. Months later, 16 politicians, including Hamrick, were indicted on charges of conspiracy to subvert Mingo’s free elections.

″As ordinary citizens of Mingo County, we have been repeatedly shocked and dismayed at the manner in which the county government has been organized and run,″ the grand jury said.

″What we have heard individually by way of rumor, hearsay and speculation over the past several years has been verified to us by sworn testimony.″

Taking on the power structure is not easy for some ″ordinary citizens,″ many of whom have long believed their livelihood depended upon remaining in the politicians’ good graces. Poverty allowed corruption to flourish, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Savage, who heads a corruption investigation.

According to Savage, only 8,700 of the county’s 36,000 residents have jobs. More than 2,600 of the jobs are controlled by politicians, such as those who run the school board, the county commission and the anti-poverty agency. As a result, Savage said, many residents believe they must vote the way they’re told by the politicians.

″The political bosses had a long-standing habit of threatening people’s jobs, their food stamps, their Social Security, and many people just don’t know that they - the bosses - can’t really affect those things,″ he said.

This year’s deadline for filing for office passed long before the grand jury returned its indictments. But the investigation was no secret, and when the filing period ended, most of the incumbents - many previously aligned with Owens or Hamrick - had decided against seeking re-election.

″There are an awful lot of just average good old people running for office this year,″ said Curtis Fletcher, a high school assistant principal who is one of five candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for a county commission seat.

″People had no idea what was going on with some of our leaders,″ Fletcher said. ″They knew about who got gravel for their road and who got a job at the courthouse.″

Fletcher, a political newcomer, estimates he will spend about $2,000 for his campaign.

″In the past, you couldn’t get elected (to the commission) unless you were willing to spend $15,000 or $20,000,″ he said.

According to the indictments, much of that money went to buy votes for politicians who in turn used their positions to protect friends and family engaged in other illegal activities.

Former Sheriff Eddie Hilbert pleaded guilty to buying his job for $100,000 from Owens, his predecessor. Hilbert allegedly used his position to protect Kermit Fire Chief Wig Preece, who was convicted on federal charges of running a ″drug carry-out″ next door to the town police department, headed by his son-in-law, David Ramey.

Preece and Ramey, along with other relatives, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their role in Kermit’s drug ring.

″They were doing more business than the K-mart,″ said Tennis Hatfield, a former radio announcer who is a first-time candidate running for sheriff. ″When you can put up a sign on the building that says ‘Out Of Drugs, Back In 30 Minutes,’ there’s something more wrong than usual.″