As the sheriff of Lincoln County, W.Va., Jerry Bowman is sworn to uphold the law. But the 58-year-old law enforcement veteran stood in a federal courtroom in Charleston on Wednesday and pleaded guilty in a shocking voter fraud case that has stripped him of his job and could send him to prison for a decade.
Prosecutors say Bowman and former Lincoln County Clerk Donald Whitten, 62, were part of a scheme to steal the May 2010 Democratic primary by stuffing ballot boxes with illegal absentee ballots.
Bowman admitted to falsifying more than 100 of the absentee ballot applications and even voting with some of the ballots himself, while Whitten, who also pleaded guilty Wednesday, acknowledged lying to investigators about the plan to try to throw the election.
"It makes you mad," said Charles Brumfield, who ran against Bowman for Lincoln County circuit clerk, about having the election stolen from him. "It was hurtful. You just didn't think that would happen in today's society."
Brumfield told Fox News that on election night, he was ahead by about 235 votes. That is, until additional batches of absentee ballots started mysteriously appearing, repeatedly, throughout the evening.
"We knew something was wrong, because the post office closes at 4:30 ... you don't go to the post office at 9 o'clock at night and find ballots."
But for several hours on election night, "They kept coming out and saying 'we found some more ballots' ... and they did this about three times from 7 to 11 p.m., and when the final tally was taken, we lost," Brumfield said.
Brumfield was suspicious leading up to election night because he says he heard that more then 800 absentee ballot applications had been requested for the race, nearly six times more than normal number. He took the case to court, and after a judge threw out more than 300 ballots, he was declared the winner and was sworn in as the Lincoln County circuit clerk.
"An absentee ballot is a good thing, if it’s used correctly, the way it's supposed to. And it wasn't used that way," Brumfield said.
The voter fraud allegations were investigated by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in West Virginia and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. An FBI agent and an investigator from Tennant's office even allegedly had a gun pulled on them by one absentee ballot voter who is charged with making threats to kill them.
"We won't tolerate elections violations," Tennant told Fox News. "It makes me angry that someone would take our process, which is a good process, and attempt to manipulate it for their own good. ... It is disappointing."
“Voter fraud in southern West Virginia goes far and wide. It’s been bad my whole life,” the Lincoln County Republican Party Chairwoman Lisa Ramey said. She is now running for sheriff, and told Fox News that she once “saw someone buy a vote and get a bottle,” meaning whiskey.
“I’m appalled, disgusted,” she says. “We have good citizens in Lincoln County and we would like to have one, decent, fair election in our county, but I’m not sure that will be able to occur unless the federal government takes over the election process.”
She calls this voter fraud case, “the tip of the iceberg.”
But Tennant says the case shows that voter fraud violations will be pursued. She says that people who engage in voter fraud "attempt to chip away at our democracy,” and she has a message for anyone who might consider committing fraud: “If you attempt to chip away at our democracy, and if you manipulate the system, then you will face the punishment ... It's the voters, the honest voters who we work to protect."
Tennant also says, "Every vote and every election is important, because it represents our democracy, it represents our freedom, it represents our ability to choose in a fair and open manner." She vows to vigilantly protect the process.
After the plea hearing, Goodwin issued a statement saying, “A citizen’s right to vote is at the very foundation of our constitutional democracy. When votes are bought, sold or obtained by fraud, democracy itself is in peril.”
Bowman refused an interview request from Fox News, turning his back and walking into his house as we approached him, while he was handing over his letter of resignation to Lincoln County Commission President Charles McCann. And as he arrived at court, he refused to comment when asked why he tried to steal the election or fake absentee ballots.
"He was a good sheriff," McCann told Fox News. "He worked diligently and was concerned about the good of Lincoln County regarding drugs, and people who would break the law."
Bowman pleaded guilty to the charge of “conspiracy against rights,” and faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Whitten pleaded guilty to “making a false statement in connection with the fraud scheme,” and faces a possible sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Both will be sentenced in June.
As part of their plea agreement, both Bowman and Whitten are barred from holding public office for life. But that requirement did not cover another local candidate. Former County Assessor Jerry Weaver, who pleaded guilty to felony voter fraud related conspiracy in 2005, was running to replace Bowman as sheriff but recently dropped out of the race.
As he sat in his office in the Lincoln County building, with small American flags on the cabinets and red-white-and-blue patriotic sayings hanging on the walls, Brumfield said he is undeterred by being a voter fraud victim.
"I think people should not give up the right to vote, they should come out and vote, because it’s their right to do so. Nobody should hamper them. They should come out and vote the way they want to," he said.
If you suspect voter fraud or election problems where you live, tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.