Allegations of election corruption that roiled the Southwest Virginia home town of gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore have resulted in the indictment of the city's former mayor.
A grand jury on Monday indicted Charles Dougherty, former mayor of Gate City, on 37 counts of voter fraud for allegedly manipulating absentee ballots to win his reelection campaign in May 2004, according to the prosecutor in the case.
The scandal in the small town near the Virginia-Tennessee line has drawn attention across the state because Gate City's voter registrar is Willie Mae Kilgore, the mother of the Republican candidate for governor and former attorney general.
Kilgore's mother has not been accused of any crime. Botetourt Commonwealth's Attorney Joel Branscom, who was appointed as a special prosecutor, said no other charges are pending, but he declined to call the election case closed.
"You never say never," Branscom said. "You don't know who's going to come forward or what people are going to say."
Willie Mae Kilgore could not be reached to comment yesterday. Repeated calls to the registrar's office rang busy.
Campaign aides for the GOP candidate said the case has no bearing on the gubernatorial election, in which Kilgore is facing Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running as an independent.
"The local electoral board has declared that the registrar's office behaved in an appropriate manner," said Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh. "This is, in fact, a local election. The prosecutor has indicated who he was interested in. We don't see how this has anything, really, to do with our campaign."
Kilgore was born and raised in Gate City and credits his interest in politics to his parents, who are lifelong Republicans. His mother has been the registrar of voters for several decades; his father was chairman of the Scott County Republican Party for many years.
The case against Dougherty revolves around Virginia's restrictive rules regarding who can be an absentee voter. State law requires that a resident who wants to vote absentee choose a particular reason from an approved list.
Voters can cast absentee ballots if they are going to be out of town on Election Day, if they are in the military or at school, or if they are too sick to appear at the polls or are caring for someone who is ill.
Many states allow absentee voting for any reason, but Virginia's legislature has repeatedly killed bills to ease the state's restrictions.
Dougherty, who was running for reelection as mayor last year, is accused of persuading voters, including some elderly residents, to lie on their forms about why they were voting absentee. He won the race with many absentee ballots but later was removed from office.
His opponent in the race, Mark Jenkins, has been interim mayor during the state investigation.
Dougherty was indicted on 18 counts of aiding and abetting in violating the absentee ballot process and 17 counts of providing false information on voter forms. He also was indicted twice for conspiring to prevent the free exercise of the right to vote.
Each count is a Class 5 felony. If convicted on all charges, Dougherty faces a maximum of 370 years in prison.
"It's disturbing what happened down there," Branscom said. "I've never had a case like this. It's important to make sure our system works."
Dougherty, a former sheriff's deputy and currently an employee at the jail, turned himself in to Virginia State Police yesterday afternoon, according to a police spokeswoman.
Dougherty could not be reached by telephone. He has told local newspapers that he did nothing wrong during the election.