CHARLESTON (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday called election fraud “a festering sore on the culture and image” of West Virginia before sentencing a former Lincoln County sheriff and an ex-county clerk to prison for trying to flood the county’s 2010 Democratic primary with fraudulent absentee ballots.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentenced ex-Sheriff Jerry Bowman to one year and one day in federal prison, while former Clerk Donald Whitten received a term of one year and six months. Each was fined $5,000.
In March, Bowman pleaded guilty to conspiring to stuff the primary ballot box while running for circuit clerk, while Whitten pleaded guilty to lying to an investigator for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant who was looking into ballot fraud.
A circuit judge later threw out 300 such ballots, reversing Bowman’s primary win.
Both defendants resigned from office after pleading guilty. They apologized to the court during their separate hearings Wednesday.
“I made a horrific mistake,” Bowman said. “It has changed my life and my family’s life forever.”
Bowman’s attorney, Rod Smith, said his client already had suffered enough. Smith said the embarrassment of the case forced Bowman to move out of the county and put his home up for sale.
Federal prosecutors sought leniency for Bowman, 58, because he helped convince now-former county Commissioner Thomas Ramey Jr. to admit to his role in the scheme through a guilty plea earlier this month.
Bowman also was credited for aiding the case against Lincoln Count resident James Matheny, who was convicted in May of threatening election fraud investigators at gunpoint when they tried to interview him.
But Johnston said he had to send a message that election fraud in southern West Virginia “is severe criminal behavior that requires a just punishment.”
Earlier, Johnston overruled a defense motion that argued Bowman didn’t abuse a position of trust. The judge said testimony showed Bowman’s role as sheriff “did play a significant role” in the success of the scheme.
During the sentencing of Whitten, 63, Johnston mentioned Lincoln County’s namesake, Abraham Lincoln, and his 1863 Gettysburg Address. The judge noted those who commit election fraud are basically telling soldiers who died for America’s freedom that “your sacrifice means nothing to my petty, provincial” acts.
Several members of Bowman’s family wiped away tears after hearing his sentence in the packed courtroom.
Tennant said she was satisfied with both sentences and said she was proud of her office’s investigations into election fraud.
“We will not allow anybody to chip away at democracy,” she said.