Sunday, March 23, 2003

Could elections have tarnished Kentucky's image?

Some say killings, fraud charges reinforce stereotypes

By Roger Alford
The Associated Press

PIKEVILLE, Ky. - People in the mountains of the state who have been trying to polish its reputation concede they have been dealt severe setbacks over the past year by elections that were marred by foul play.

Two candidates were murdered. Others reported being shot at. Just this month, a federal grand jury charged a judicial candidate and several supporters with conspiring to buy votes. Authorities say investigations could result in more charges of election fraud.

All that has hurt the state's image, said Marty Newell, vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonprofit group working to eliminate negative stereotypes. "It doesn't help when we shoot ourselves in the foot," he said. "It certainly reinforces those stereotypes."

In early March, a federal grand jury indicted John Doug Hays, a judicial candidate from Pikeville, and eight campaign workers for allegedly conspiring to buy votes in last year's election. Prosecutors allege that the conspiracy was to buy the votes under the guise of paying people to haul voters to polls. Hays reported paying 1,217 people $50 each to haul voters. His attorney, John West of Covington, said has did nothing wrong and will plead innocent.

Mike Mullins, a director of the East Kentucky Leadership Foundation, worries that the allegations of wrongdoing might discourage promising young leaders from entering politics.

"You have a whole group of people who will never be involved in the election process, because they're not willing to take part in those things," he said. "They know they can't compete."

A candidate for sheriff in Harlan County, Paul Browning Jr., disappeared last March while campaigning and was later found shot in the head and burned inside his pickup truck on a lonely mountain road. Browning had been sheriff in the early 1980s, before he was sent to prison on a 1982 conviction for conspiring to kill two local public officials.

In April, Sam Catron, an incumbent sheriff in Pulaski County, was campaigning at an outdoor political rally when he was killed in a sniper-style shooting. The triggerman has been sentenced to life in prison. Two others, a challenger in the election and a supporter, have been charged with conspiracy to murder.

In the days leading up to the May primary, Clay County Clerk Jennings White reported that he had been shot at while campaigning. The sheriff said White's van had 33 bullet holes in it. On the same day, a private investigator working for White's challenger reported being shot at six times.

U.S. Attorney Gregory Van Tatenhove declined to comment on any pending investigations or indictments, but said his office has begun cracking down on election fraud. He said federal authorities are working with the state to target candidates and supporters who try to sway voters with cash.

"If you say it's OK as a community to buy votes, then you're just one step away from saying it's OK to buy a public official," Van Tatenhove said.

Mullins said the legislature needs to stiffen campaign laws, especially those that make it legal to pay people to drive voters to polls.

"It is blatant, outright vote buying," Mullins said. "We all know that. My opinion is it should be totally outlawed."

Brian Wright, spokesman for the state attorney general, said his office received hundreds of allegations of election fraud last year.

"Vote fraud strikes at the foundation of our Constitution," he said. "Every registered voter has the right to cast a ballot freely, without illegal influences."

Mullins said economic woes in some of the poorest counties play a part in campaign shenanigans. Winning elections, he said, means being able to hire family and friends who might not otherwise have a job.

"Voting is a great gift that we have," Mullins said. "To think that gift is being circumvented is a tragedy."

Van Tatenhove said drug dealing also might have been involved in Kentucky elections. In the murder of Catron in the Pulaski County sheriff's race, one alleged conspirator, Kenneth White, had been arrested previously on charges of dealing drugs. Police say White was helping to finance the campaign of challenger Jeff Morris, also charged as a conspirator, in exchange for Morris' protection if he got elected.

In Harlan County, Browning was videotaped accepting money from an alleged drug dealer before his murder. And in Knott County, authorities believe votes were not only bought with cash, but traded for drugs during last year's primary and general elections.

"Politics in the region don't always bring out the best in us," Newell said. "It certainly reinforces those stereotypes. The problem with most stereotypes is that there's a grain of truth in there. Very rarely are they just plucked out of thin air."

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