WISE, Va. – The former mayor of a tiny coal town who prosecutors say masterminded a scheme to buy votes with beer, cigarettes and even pork rinds, pleaded guilty Thursday to 243 felonies, including vote-rigging and corruption.
Wise County Circuit Judge Tammy McElyea made former Appalachia mayor Ben Cooper plead individually to each of the charges against him, which included stealing election records, forging ballots, hindering the rights of citizens to vote freely, voting more than once in an election and violating absentee voting procedures.
By the time she reached the 11th charge, Cooper, 64, was saying "guilty" before she had finished reading the charge.
"You're getting ahead of me," she said, to which Cooper apologized.
During the trial of one of 13 people accused of conspiring with Cooper, prosecutors portrayed the ex-mayor as being the key figure in a plot to rig a 2004 election in Appalachia, 91 miles northeast of Knoxville, Tenn. They said the accused conspirators intercepted absentee ballots from the mail, filled them out and forged the signatures of the intended voters.
Cooper is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 9 and could get up to 21 months in prison, based on state sentencing guidelines. His plea agreement left sentencing up to the judge.
Seven others convicted in the case have been handed sentences ranging from six months in prison to fines.