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Lincoln ex-commissioner gets 21 months for election fraud

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge on Thursday sentenced former Lincoln County commissioner Thomas Ramey to 21 months in prison, bringing to a close a years-long voting fraud investigation that led to the downfall of three county officials.

U.S. District Judge Thomas E. Johnston sentenced Ramey, 32, on charges of lying to FBI agents when he said he did not know who altered absentee ballot applications after they were filed in the County Clerk's Office for the Lincoln's 2010 Democratic primary. He later admitted to knowing who made the illegal alterations.

Earlier this year, Johnston sentenced former Lincoln County clerk Donnie Whitten to 12 months and former sheriff Jerry Bowman 18 months in prison for their roles in the scheme.

Bowman admitted that he falsified more than 100 absentee ballot applications for voters who were not legally qualified to vote absentee. After the false applications were processed, Bowman traveled to many of the voters' homes and stood by as they filled out the ballots, telling them which candidates he backed, prosecutors said.

Whitten admitted that he lied to investigators about his role in the scheme, and that he lied when he said he had provided the absentee ballots to Ramey.

Ramey's lawyer, Gregory J. Campbell, told the judge Thursday that his client was only a bit player in the overall scheme and that Whitten and Bowman influenced the fledgling politician to participate in activity that he did not know was illegal.

"Our position is that he did not intend to violate the law," Campbell said. "It's unlike his character to do something like this."

Ramey was appointed to the County Commission in late 2009, when a seated commissioner died. A school board member at the time, Ramey had a reputation as an activist and previously had spearheaded a grassroots effort to fight school consolidation in the county, according to a sentencing memorandum filed in U.S. District Court.

Ramey did not have a relationship with Bowman or Whitten before the 2010 primary election, and had never been in election training, the memorandum states. The two men told him about early absentee voting and then encouraged him into a scheme to complete ballot applications for voters, according to the memorandum.

Ramey did not know that state laws require the voter to state a reason why he or she is voting absentee, according to the memorandum, he simply did not fill in a reason on each of the applications.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said the government "did not buy" Ramey's representations.

Ruby pointed out in a separate sentencing memorandum that the ballot applications he completed included clauses that read, "I understand that I must vote in person if I can," and "I do hereby certify the information given is true to the best of my knowledge."

"It strains credulity to assert that an elected official, a county commissioner, believed it was fine to falsify scores of official forms to vote in federal and state elections when the forms themselves expressly state the opposite," Ruby said, according to the memorandum.

A staffer went back through the applications and filled in a reason. Prosecutors have asserted that Ramey was the one who ordered the staffer to do so.

"At the end, I panicked when I was asked about it," Ramey said Thursday. "I was too scared to admit responsibility to it."

Ramey, when he spoke at sentencing, apologized to his family and the citizens of Lincoln County and said he grew up with an interest in politics.

"It was always very hurtful to me, knowing Lincoln County was a place that had a lot of negative attention," he said, referring to Southern West Virginia's reputation for election corruption. "Never did I want to end up being in a position where I would cause negative attention and negative connotations."

Johnston said he also did not buy Ramey's representations that he was completely ignorant of the conspiracy.

"Although election law is complicated, it's not that complicated," Johnston said. "It's not rocket science."

Ramey's nearly two-year sentence is the harshest of the three officials who were implicated in the scheme to rig the 2010 primary. A fourth man, James Matheny, was sentenced to eight years in prison for threatening two investigators with a gun while they were questioning him about his absentee ballot.

Reach Zac Taylor at zachary.taylor@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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