- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2009

MANCHESTER, KY. (AP) - Folks in this hardscrabble town tucked into the Appalachian hills don’t seem to have much hope when they talk about the latest bunch of officials accused of masterminding crooked county elections.

Residents say votes could be bought for years, underscored by the March indictment of eight officials accused of rigging elections in Clay County. Federal prosecutors say they were part of a scheme to extort undisclosed amounts of cash allegedly used to bribe voters at the polls.

There are hints of optimism that the feds could clean up a long-standing tradition of corruption in this impoverished nook of southeastern Kentucky, some 95 miles south of Lexington, where people struggling to pay the bills and find good jobs were easy targets for vote-buying. For now, disgust abounds.

“Politics in Clay County have been crookeder than a barrel of fish hooks,” said Ronnie Cottongim, a 60-year-old disabled coal miner. “When people are trying to make ends meet, they’ll do whatever they can to put groceries on the table.”

The county had an unemployment rate of 14.3 percent in February 2009, compared with a 10.2 percent statewide rate. An estimated 34 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2006, twice the state average, according to federal statistics. The county’s per-capita income of $17,413 was well below the $29,729 statewide average.

Public corruption cases aren’t a novelty in Manchester. In 2007, a former longtime mayor, an ex-assistant police chief and two former city councilmen were sentenced to prison in another corruption case.

Among those charged in the most recent case are a judge known for his toughness and a school superintendent who’s so far led a district showing improvement in student performance. They’re accused of being “political bosses” who recruited candidates and then tried to swing elections in their favor.

Those two, along with a county clerk accused of doling out cash to voters at the polls, have pleaded not guilty. Five alleged accomplices also pleaded not guilty. Their trial is set for May 19.

Many say buying and selling votes has simply been a way of life in eastern Kentucky, and Clay County has hardly been immune. Little has changed over time _ except, perhaps, the tactics.

“Used to, you could see them shell the money out in the open, right at the polls,” said Carl Hubbard, 75, a retired farmer and coal truck driver. “They kind of hide it now.”

Some residents hope the government’s latest case will bring lasting change.

“People are thinking there might be some clean elections after this,” said Alma Roberts, 54, a janitor in Manchester.

Authorities say elections haven’t been “clean” in Clay County for years.

Prosecutors claim that longtime judge Russell Cletus Maricle and Clay County schools Superintendent Douglas C. Adams led a group that recruited slates of candidates and then tried to rig elections in their favor in 2002, 2004 and 2006.

Maricle was a circuit judge from 1991 to 2007, and was well-known and respected for handing out tough sentences in drug cases.

The 65-year-old judge had been serving in the senior program for special judges until his suspension after his indictment on charges of racketeering, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Maricle could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Maricle attorney David Hoskins said he wasn’t worried about Clay County’s past reputation influencing the outcome of his case.

“Rumors and gossip may win the day in public opinion outside of the courtroom,” he said. “But fortunately they have to go by evidence when it comes into court.”

While his fellow defendants were released after arraignment, Maricle was ordered to stay in jail until trial. Hoskins has appealed. Federal officials alleged at the detention hearing that Maricle had tried to sway a witness testifying before the grand jury investigating the case. Hoskins, who did not represent Maricle at that hearing, said the allegation won’t hold up during trial.

Federal officials also claimed Maricle tried to find out the home addresses of an FBI agent and two other investigators, and what vehicles they drove. Hoskins describes it as harmless curiosity.

“A person whose name comes up in that is not doing anything wrong when they say, ‘Well, I wonder what this guy looks like who’s supposed to be investigating me, I wonder if that’s the guy I see across the street from my office. I wonder if that car that drove past my house last night is the FBI?’” Hoskins said.

Adams has led the county school system for a decade, and during that time the district has improved despite the stereotype that poor, Appalachian districts perform poorly.

As of 2008, all the district’s schools were either meeting their goals or showing progress under the state’s testing program, said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Adams, who faces a racketeering charge, maintains his innocence, said his attorney, Bennett Bayer.

“We feel like Mr. Adams will be able to stand up and show that he didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Clay County Clerk Freddy Thompson allegedly provided money for election officers to buy votes, the indictment claimed. Thompson also told election officers how to change votes at the machines, it said.

Some voters were bribed at the voting booths, the indictment said, and some officials allegedly told voters to use booths incorrectly so they could go back and change the tallies.

Doug Abner, a community activist and senior pastor at the nondenominational Community Church in Manchester, has prayed for years with his congregation for “God to expose the darkness” of the manipulated system. But he knows clearing out corruption won’t be easy.

“We have an element of people who don’t think there’s even a problem with selling or buying votes,” he said. “Obviously, when you get in that shape, you’re headed in the wrong direction.”

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