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Vote Buying a Way of Life in W.Va. County

June 20, 2005 GMT

HAMLIN, W.Va. (AP) _ According to political lore, just before John F. Kennedy’s momentous win in the 1960 West Virginia primary, the Democratic boss of Logan County asked the Kennedy campaign for ``35″ _ meaning $3,500 _ to buy votes for the presidential candidate. In an apparent misunderstanding, Kennedy’s people delivered $35,000 in cash in two briefcases.

West Virginia’s coal country has a long and rich history of vote-buying _ which explains why many folks in Lincoln County all but shrugged over the indictment last month of five people on federal charges they secured votes for liquor or a $20 bill or two.

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Sharrell Lovejoy, 83, said he has heard rumors of vote-buying since he opened his Bobcat Restaurant on Hamlin’s main drag, in 1948.

``It’s gone on for ages,″ said Lovejoy, behind his diner’s hand-cranked register. ``I’m sure they’re still doing it. They’re just more careful about it.″

As with past election fraud probes, the latest case targets solely Democrats, who dominate the voter rolls and local governments through the region. In Lincoln County, population 22,100, Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-1; the indictment focuses largely on the party’s primary elections, going back to 1990.

Not that the GOP has clean hands. Republican former Gov. Arch Moore pleaded guilty to five corruption-related charges in 1990, including one that alleged he spent $100,000 in unreported campaign cash during his successful 1984 campaign.

``This seems to be something that is just in the blood of people in southern West Virginia. They’re always looking for ways to get away with this,″ said Ken Hechler, who fielded election fraud complaints as West Virginia’s secretary of state from 1985 to 2000.

With Hechler’s help, a state-federal task force secured more than two dozen election-related convictions in Mingo County in the 1980s. Ensnared officials included a former sheriff, a county commissioner, a school board president and a Democratic Party chairman.

In the 1990s, politicians in neighboring Logan County found themselves on the defensive. Two state legislators, the county assessor and a Circuit Court judge, among others, went to jail on corruption charges that included vote-buying.

Federal investigators revisited Logan County last year. The sheriff and a city police chief resigned and pleaded guilty to exchanging money for votes. Three other people were convicted on related charges.

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The current case targets Circuit Court clerk Greg Stowers, 48, the son of Lincoln County’s longtime Democratic Party chairman; his deputy, Clifford Odell ``Groundhog″ Vance, 49; Jackie David Adkins, 36, a state highway worker; Wandell ``Rocky″ Adkins, 49, no relation; and Toney ``Zeke″ Dingess, 34.

All five have pleaded not guilty. The defense alleges that two convicted felons used by the government as informants lied to investigators to avoid stiff sentences on weapons charges.

The defense also says the government used illegal tactics during its investigation, intimidating voters by filming at polling places and trailing voters home. Prosecutors countered that the U.S. Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section approved the investigators’ techniques.

Prosecutors allege the defendants enlisted precinct captains to pay off voters and hand out slates listing the preferred candidates. Most votes were bought for $20 apiece, prosecutors said. The indictment also said Stowers drove to Kentucky and filled his pickup truck with booze for distribution to voters during the 1994 primary.

The indictment cites 16 voters who were allegedly paid off. Prosecutors have not said just how many voters, all told, were supposedly bought or how much was spent, but said the conspirators assembled $25,000 for one election alone to bribe voters.

The evidence includes footage from a hidden camera and microphone that informant Wayne Watts wore during the 2004 primary as he tried to get people to talk about buying votes.

``Man,″ Watts is heard muttering as he walks away from one group of locals who professed to know nothing about money and candidate lists changing hands, ``this ain’t no way to run an election.″