CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A federal judge sentenced a former West Virginia county official to nearly two years in prison on Thursday, partly as a warning that election fraud in the state must stop.
Thomas Ramey Jr. was ordered to serve 21 months for lying to an FBI agent about absentee ballot applications, which prosecutors say were part of a scheme to sway Lincoln County’s 2010 Democratic primary.
Appointed to the county commission and running to keep the seat, Ramey had filed the applications after enlisting residents to vote absentee. State law requires a reason for casting an absentee ballot. Ramey pleaded guilty to lying to the agent in February about arranging for a longtime acquaintance in the clerk’s office to mark reasons on applications that weren’t fully filled out.
“In the end, I panicked, and when I was asked about it I was too scared to admit it,” Ramey told U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston and a courtroom packed with dozens of his supporters and other Lincoln County residents.
But Ramey also alleged that he did not know while approaching residents to vote absentee that they needed an excuse for not voting in person, or that he conspired with two other now-former county officials to influence the 2010 primary. Ramey described himself as a grassroots activist, a director of a group advocating for small community-based schools, who saw absentee voting as a way to involve people in the election process who might not otherwise take part.
“He was never part of any agreement to commit a crime,” said Greg Campbell, Ramey’s court-appointed lawyer.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said prosecutors consider Ramey a co-conspirator with then-Sheriff Jerry Bowman and then-Clerk Donald Whitten.
“The defendant at least must have had an understanding that there was a problem with falsifying forms,” Ruby said.
Johnston agreed that Ramey’s stance was not credible.
“You should have known better, and you should have educated yourself on election law,” the judge told the 32-year-old Democrat.
Johnston also cited that as a county commissioner, Ramey’s duties included ensuring elections are conducted freely and fairly.
“You failed miserably in that task,” Johnston said.
The judge called Thursday’s sentence a message that election fraud in Lincoln County and southern West Virginia must end, adding that punishments will only grow harsher if it doesn’t.
Following the hearing, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said the sentencing should wrap up the probe into the 2010 primary.
“I hope that this sent a message, a very simple message that you can’t steal election in the southern district of West Virginia, and if you try you’ll go to jail,” Goodwin said.
Several in the courtroom gasped when Johnston announced the prison term, but some others nodded their heads when he spoke of a need to deter the fraud that has poisoned elections in that region for decades.
The judge said that he received more than 30 letters on Ramey’s behalf — many of which, he noted, seemed to parrot the conspiracy argument raised at Thursday’s hearing — as well as several letters against him.
When he pleaded guilty in August, Ramey agreed to stay out of politics for 10 years as part of his deal with prosecutors.
Also that month, Johnston sentenced Bowman to a year and a day in prison for conspiracy and Whitten to 18 months for lying to an investigator about the fraud plot. Prosecutors believe both Bowman and Ramey feared close primary races. Unable to run for sheriff again this year because of term limits, Bowman was running for circuit clerk in 2010. Whitten was seeking four more years as clerk in the Democrat-dominated county. During Thursday’s hearing, Campbell cited a statement from Bowman that it was Whitten’s idea to employ absentee ballots.