The Cost of Buying Votes

Originally posted: December 9, 2005

A “fetcher bill” is a term of legislative art. Often it is tossed in the hopper to change the regulatory climate of the banking or insurance industry. Its main ken bode crop.jpgpurpose, however, is to attract campaign contributions from those who want to block the legislation. The bill goes nowhere, but legislators get a dose of cash for their campaign coffers.

Federal prosecutors have been known to put up a fetcher bill involving legalized gambling. When the lobbying money pours in, the law enforcement folks run a sting, sending undercover agents with cash to bribe lawmakers for their votes. Those snared in this trap always cry, “Foul!” They were set up, they say.

In the southern coalfield counties of West Virginia, political corruption is so endemic that U.S. attorneys, the FBI and IRS always seem to have at least one task force operating. The most recent target was Logan County, and the crime was vote-buying.

This time, according to a report in The Washington Post, the feds came up with a new strategy, a “fetcher candidate.” Thomas Esposito, mayor of the city of Logan, was found to have paid the $6,500 bar tab of a local magistrate and then paid off the magistrate directly to buy his silence. Esposito entered a plea agreement with the government requiring him to cooperate with the investigation of corruption.

What the federal prosecutors ken bode hall of fame.jpgwanted Esposito to do was file as a candidate for the House of Delegates, then meet with his old cronies and political operatives to arrange for vote-buying in the primary election. This, they hoped, would uncover a treasure trove of corruption.

At a political rally, candidate Esposito invited two locals to his car where he gave them more than $2,000 and told them, “Buy all the votes you can.” Two days later, his purposes accomplished, Esposito dropped out of the race. It was too late to get his name off the ballot, however, and on Election Day he received 2,175 votes.

Perry French Harvey Jr., a retired coal miner and one of the men in Esposito’s car that night, is scheduled to go on trial next week on one charge of conspiracy to buy votes. The other man has been granted immunity.

Harvey and his lawyers make multiple points in his defense. First, they argue, the government itself corrupted the election. By putting a sham candidate in the field, every vote cast for Esposito was a vote that could have been cast for a real candidate. In effect, part of Harvey’s defense will be that the government created the crime. They have a point.

In a court filing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gregory Goodwin replied that nothing Esposito did was illegal. “(His) candidacy merely provided the stage on which the defendant acted.” The scheme to have Esposito file for office was approved all the way to the top of the Department of Justice.

Vote-buying in Logan County is a deeply entrenched practice. Roscoe Spence, former editor of the local paper, once described an encounter with a lady on her way to the polls. “I’m a good Christian woman,” she told the newsman, “but if anyone thinks I’m going to vote if they don’t pay me, they’re wrong.”

Harvey claims that when he took the $1,000, he said, “I ain’t buying any votes,” ballot box.jpgand he didn’t. Presumably, the prosecutors will be required to prove that the government’s money actually was used to bribe voters.

Harvey lost his bid to have the case thrown out. The judge said that corruption in Logan County had been going on longer than living memory, that people with knowledge of it are reluctant to testify against their friends, and Esposito’s fetcher candidacy might be the only way to root it out. It’s a groundbreaking prosecution theory and should lead to an interesting day in court.

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