FBI's Sham Candidate Crawled Under W.Va.'s Political Rock

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 2, 2005

The three men were sitting in a car outside a rural elementary school in West Virginia when the candidate handed over $2,000 in cash and said, "Buy all the votes you can."

In the hamlets and hollows of Logan County, where political shenanigans are legendary and it's said that a vote can be bought for a pint of whiskey or a $10 bill, some say there was nothing extraordinary about the transaction.

Here's what made it unusual: Although Thomas E. Esposito was on the ballot as a candidate for the state House of Delegates, he wasn't really running for office.

The small-town lawyer and former mayor was just bait. And when the FBI lowered him into the murky waters of southern West Virginia politics last year, it dangled him like a shiny lure.

The whole affair landed yesterday in a Charleston courtroom, where a defense attorney cried foul, accusing the government of "outrageous" conduct and of violating the sanctity of the election process. He said the charade robbed 2,175 citizens who voted for Esposito -- unaware he wasn't for real -- of a constitutional right.

But a federal judge sided with the government, ruling after a 30-minute hearing that corruption in Logan County had been endemic "for longer than living memory" and that the bogus election campaign might have been the only way to root it out.

In Logan County, which is about an hour south and a world removed from Charleston, there are people who agree. "This stuff has been going on since I was a kid," Kenneth McCoy, 54, a disabled miner, said this week. "They had to come up with some way to stop it. Personally, I have no problem with it."

Political corruption in southern West Virginia goes back generations, residents and observers say.

"Federal authorities have been intervening in southern West Virginia for 80 years, at least," said Topper Sherwood, co-author of a 1994 book on longtime Logan County political chieftain Raymond Chafin. "More often than not, their role is to come in and remove power from those who have acquired it illegally."

Moss Burgess, 62, a retired Logan County high school chemistry teacher who has run unsuccessfully for local office, said: "I'm glad that somebody's trying to clean up the system in this county. Most people, they've more or less accepted it as common."

U.S. District Judge David A. Faber, chief judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, asserted in yesterday's ruling: "It has been nearly impossible to prosecute corruption in Logan County because persons with knowledge of it are reluctant to testify against others in their community."

The current case began in 2003, when Esposito, a lawyer who had been mayor of the City of Logan for 16 years, entered a plea agreement with the government in a corruption case, according to court papers. He had been accused of paying the $6,500 bar tab of a local magistrate for reasons not specified and then paying the magistrate to keep quiet about the arrangement. The magistrate was later indicted on an extortion charge.

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