CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman and Clerk Donald Whitten will plead guilty to charges that they attempted to flood the 2010 Democratic primary with fraudulent absentee ballots, becoming the latest southern West Virginia officeholders ensnared by an investigation into election fraud, federal and state officials announced Monday.
Bowman has agreed to plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge. He is accused of trying to stuff the ballot box in his favor while running for circuit clerk, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said. Whitten will plead guilty to lying to a retired FBI agent hired by Tennant to investigate the influx of absentee ballots in that primary.
A judge later threw out more than 300 contested absentee ballots, reversing Bowman's initial victory and securing the nomination for incumbent Circuit Clerk Charles Brumfield.
Bowman and Whitten have agreed to resign by the time of their plea hearing, which are not yet scheduled, and have already begun cooperating with investigators. Their plea agreements, filed Monday, mention but do not identify co-conspirators. Prosecutors say the investigation continues.
Bowman, who is finishing his second term as sheriff and cannot seek a third under the state constitution, signed his plea agreement last week. Having won his latest term as clerk in 2010, Whitten agreed to plead guilty under a deal signed in late December.
Fearing a close race, Bowman allegedly conspired with Whitten and an unidentified candidate for county commission to visit voters and ask them to apply for absentee ballots, according to Bowman's plea agreement.
"The Candidates further agreed that they would complete absentee ballot applications for voters," the agreement documents said. "The Candidates also agreed that on those applications they would state certain reasons that voters were legally eligible to vote absentee, regardless of whether those reasons were true."
Bowman went on to fill out more than 100 absentee ballot applications, and for most "knowingly and intentionally provided false reasons for voters' eligibility to vote absentee," the filing said. It further alleged that Bowman would later revisit the voters once their absentee ballots arrived, telling most how to vote and marking at least six of these ballots himself.
Bowman also is accused of illegally delivering ballots to voters, his plea agreement said. Whitten is accused of lying to the retired FBI agent when he denied providing those absentee ballots.
The charges against Whitten and Bowman arrive just six years after several Lincoln and Logan county officials and others pleaded guilty to charges arising from a federal vote-buying probe. That case was triggered by the 2004 Democratic primary. Those convicted included then-Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Greg Stowers and county Assessor Jerry Weaver. Though he resigned at the time, Weaver is now running for county sheriff.
Besides resigning, Bowman and Whitten have agreed to swear off future public office or political campaigning, according to the deals each signed.
Monday's press conference at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston follows Saturday's deadline for candidates to file in this year's elections. With the primary set for May 8, an array of federal, state and county offices are on the ballot.