W.Va. county official charged in vote fraud probe

CHARLESTON (AP) — Lincoln County Commissioner Thomas Ramey Jr. lied to an FBI agent investigating election fraud in southern West Virginia, a criminal charge filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court said.

Federal prosecutors allege the 32-year-old Democrat falsely told the agent in February he did not know who altered absentee ballot applications submitted to the county clerk. Ramey had actually caused someone to alter those applications in his presence, the felony filing said.

Tuesday’s charge is known as an information. Filed as an alternative to seeking a grand jury indictment, these typically signal that their target is negotiating a plea agreement with prosecutors. Ramey and his lawyer, Gregory Campbell of Charleston, did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Ramey faces up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

Ramey appears to be the unidentified candidate for county commission mentioned in previous court filings and accused of scheming with then-Sheriff Jerry Bowman and then-Clerk Donald Whitten to hijack their party’s 2010 primary with fraudulent absentee ballots. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s chief elections officer, confirmed Tuesday that the case against Ramey arises from the probe of that primary by her investigators and federal authorities.

“The charge filed today shows that I and the Secretary of State’s office do not tolerate election law violations,” Tennant said in a statement.

Unable to run for sheriff again because of term limits, Bowman was running for circuit clerk and expected both his race and the commission candidate’s to be close in Democrat-dominated Lincoln County. Bowman told prosecutors he planned with Whitten and the unidentified candidate to visit voters and ask them to apply for absentee ballots.

Ramey received a letter informing him he was the target of a grand jury investigation shortly before the case against Bowman and Whitten surfaced in late January, court filings show. Bowman and Whitten have since both resigned and pleaded guilty to federal charges. Bowman admitted to a conspiracy count, and Whitten to lying to a criminal investigator for Tennant as her office scrutinized the influx of absentee ballots. The pair awaits an Aug. 29 sentencing hearing.

Also awaiting sentencing is James Matheny of Lincoln County, found guilty by a jury in May on assault and brandishing charges after prosecutors say he threatened an FBI agent and a Tennant investigator with a gun as they inquired about the absentee ballot scheme.

“We did not give up on this investigation and will target any attempt in any election to chip away at our democracy,” Tennant, a Democrat, said in Tuesday’s statement.

A pending federal lawsuit from Ramey’s 2010 primary opponent, meanwhile, alleges Ramey won that contest with illegally cast and collected absentee ballots.

The losing candidate, Maria “Phoebe” Harless, sued in May alleging she had prevailed among the in-person voters. Her lawsuit said Whitten’s office received 835 absentee ballots applications and that 621 such ballots were mailed in and counted — more than in the six counties bordering Lincoln combined including such high-population areas as Kanawha, Cabell and Putnam.

Allegations of improper absentee votes had surfaced immediately after the primary. Assigned to the resulting review, Raleigh County Circuit Judge H. L. Kirkpatrick later threw out more than 300 contested absentee ballots, reversing Bowman’s initial victory and securing the nomination for incumbent Circuit Clerk Charles Brumfield. But Kirkpatrick disqualified Harless’ candidacy because state law prohibits two commissioners from serving from the same district. Her lawsuit alleges that the incumbent commissioner in her district, Charles Vance, had moved into her district but concealed that change until after she challenged the primary results.

Harless sued Ramey, Vance and fellow Commission Charles McCann as well as Bowman, Whitten and others. Ramey, Vance and other defendants asked a judge earlier this month to dismiss her lawsuit.

Ramey had been appointed to the commission before his primary win and was previously elected to the county school board. The Harts native is also the director of Challenge West Virginia, which describes itself as a statewide group that advocates for small community-based schools following a trend toward large-scale consolidation begun in the 1990s.

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