- Associated Press - Thursday, September 25, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The since-retired chief of a western Pennsylvania township has pleaded guilty to violating federal election laws by soliciting absentee ballots that prosecutors say benefited his wife and her running mate.

Richard Toney, 58, was immediately sentenced to three years’ probation after Thursday’s plea in a deal with prosecutors.

Toney retired last year, but in 2009 was still officer-in-charge of police in Harmar Township, a suburb about 10 miles northeast of Pittsburgh.

That’s when federal prosecutors contend he solicited absentee ballots for his wife, Kim Toney, and her running mate in that year’s Democratic primary for township supervisor.

Before the absentee ballots were counted, Kim Toney and a challenger, Robert Exler, won the top two slots in the primary. After 50 absentee ballots were counted, Toney and her running mate, Jerry Chalmers, prevailed and went on to win the general election and two seats on the five-member board that runs the township.

Chalmers and Kim Toney haven’t been accused of wrongdoing and, according to the (Tarentum) Valley News Dispatch, Chalmers denied involvement with the absentee ballots at a township supervisors’ meeting in August, about a week after federal prosecutors in Pittsburgh charged Richard Toney.

Kim Toney attended her husband’s guilty plea and sentencing, but declined comment.

Toney’s attorney, Steven Townsend, blamed the situation on a “small-town political faction” that opposes the Toneys.

Toney was a longtime officer in the township before he was named chief in 1998. He was fired in 2004 as part of what his supporters contend was a political power struggle, but agreed to drop related lawsuits and was rehired as a captain in 2006. Though he was no longer “chief” Toney spent most of the intervening years serving as “officer-in-charge” until another chief was appointed in 2011. Toney then retired last year.

Toney said little during Thursday’s 70-minute plea hearing as Senior U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose asked him about the charges and ensured he understood his right. Asked if he wanted to make a statement before sentencing, he said, “No ma’am, I’m good.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Ortiz told the judge that Toney and another man who wasn’t indicted but cooperated with authorities applied for absentee ballots, then had them filled out - often by people who shouldn’t have legally done so because they weren’t really going to be absent for the May 2009 primary.

Ortiz said some voters felt compelled to go along for fear of “potential adverse consequences” because Toney was the township’s top cop.

Townsend denied that Toney threatened anyone and suggested the cooperating witness set up Toney, who was recorded by the FBI in September 2012, reportedly coaching the man to lie to a federal grand jury.

But federal prosecutors said that witness helped Toney gather the absentee votes in support of Toney’s wife and Chalmers.

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