Bowman has agreed to plead guilty to a federal conspiracy charge. He is accused of trying to stuff the ballot box in his favor while running for circuit clerk, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said. Whitten will plead guilty to lying to a criminal investigator for Tennant as her office scrutinized the influx of absentee ballots.
Allegations of improper absentee votes had surfaced immediately after the May 2010 primary. A judge that August threw out more than 300 contested absentee ballots, reversing Bowman’s initial victory and securing the nomination for incumbent Circuit Clerk Charles Brumfield. While Judge H. L. Kirkpatrick of Raleigh County wrote in his ruling that he ‘‘makes no finding that any person or persons acted improperly,’’ Tennant’s office continued to investigate the matter before presenting its findings to federal prosecutors.
‘‘We just didn’t let it die,’’ Tennant told The Associated Press on Monday. ‘‘We carried the load. ... We don’t sweep anything under the rug.’’
Bowman and Whitten have agreed to resign by the time of their plea hearings, which are not yet scheduled, and have already begun cooperating with investigators. Their plea agreements, filed Monday, mention but do not identify co-conspirators. Prosecutors say the investigation continues.
Bowman, who is finishing his second term as sheriff and cannot seek a third under the state constitution, signed his plea agreement last week. Having won his latest term as clerk in 2010, Whitten agreed to plead guilty under a deal signed in late December.
Fearing a close race, Bowman allegedly conspired with Whitten and an unidentified candidate for county commission to visit voters and ask them to apply for absentee ballots, according to Bowman’s plea agreement.
‘‘The Candidates further agreed that they would complete absentee ballot applications for voters,’’ the agreement documents said. ‘‘The Candidates also agreed that on those applications they would state certain reasons that voters were legally eligible to vote absentee, regardless of whether those reasons were true.’’
Bowman went on to fill out more than 100 absentee ballot applications, and for most ‘‘knowingly and intentionally provided false reasons for voters’ eligibility to vote absentee,’’ the filing said. It further alleged that Bowman would later revisit the voters once their absentee ballots arrived, telling most how to vote and marking at least six of these ballots himself.
Bowman also is accused of illegally delivering ballots to voters, his plea agreement said. Whitten is accused of lying to Tennant’s investigator, retired FBI Agent Jim Wise, when he denied providing those absentee ballots.
The charges against Whitten and Bowman arrive just six years after several Lincoln and Logan county officials and others pleaded guilty to charges arising from a federal vote-buying probe. That case was triggered by the 2004 Democratic primary. Those convicted included then-Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Greg Stowers and county Assessor Jerry Weaver, as well as neighboring Logan County’s sheriff and clerk.
Wise had helped investigate that round of election fraud while with the FBI. Tennant’s office hired him in mid-2011 to bolster its investigative unit, and he interviewed Whitten in early December.
Though he resigned at the time, Weaver is now running for county sheriff. Besides resigning, Bowman and Whitten have agreed to swear off future public office or political campaigning, according to the deals each signed.
A lawyer for Whitten declined comment Monday. Bowman’s lawyer in the case did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
Tennant and Goodwin told reporters Monday that the case shows that election officials are watching for fraud, and that it is becoming harder for those who seek to corrupt the process.
‘‘The bad news is, people are still trying committing election fraud here in West Virginia in the 21st Century,’’ Goodwin said. He later added, ‘‘I want this case to send a simple message: you cannot steal elections in southern West Virginia.’’
Monday’s press conference at the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston follows Saturday’s deadline for West Virginia candidates to file in this year’s elections. With the primary set for May 8, an array of federal, state and county offices are on the ballot.
With the Legislature’s 60-day session under way, Tennant said her office will seek to revive her office’s proposal to update the absentee ballot process. The new application forms her office seeks to use should help discourage fraud attempts, Tennant said.
Another election-related bill pending this session would bar convicted felons from holding public office. But such proposals may conflict with language in the West Virginia Constitution that allows felons to run once they discharge their punishments and regain their right to vote.
Tennant also credited her staff for their work, noting that her office has been criticized for declining to comment on this case and other possible complaints and investigations.
‘‘Our record demonstrates that the office of the Secretary of State can be counted on to do its job,’’ Tennant said.
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