CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A third former West Virginia county official pleaded guilty Wednesday to a federal charge arising from a scheme to sway a 2010 Democratic primary with fraudulent absentee ballots.
Ex-Lincoln County Commissioner Thomas Ramey Jr. pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent investigating the plot. U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston set a Nov. 15 sentencing hearing for the 32-year-old Democrat, who faces up to five years in prison and a fine. Ramey remains free on bond.
Ramey admitted that he lied in a Feb. 7 interview to conceal his role in arranging for the altering of around 20 absentee ballot applications he had filed on behalf of county voters, a document filed as part of his July 5 plea agreement said.
Ramey had conspired with Lincoln County Sheriff Jerry Bowman and Clerk Donald Whitten to flood their party’s primary with absentee ballots, the filing said. Whitten was campaigning for another term in the Democrat-dominated county, where that party’s primary winners typically prevail the following November. Unable to run for sheriff again this year because of term limits, Bowman was running for circuit clerk in 2010 while Ramey had been appointed commissioner and sought election to keep the seat.
Both Bowman and Ramey feared close races, each has admitted to prosecutors.
“The Candidates agreed that they would, together and individually, visit voters and seek to persuade them to vote absentee in the Election,” the filing said. “The Candidates further agreed that they would complete absentee ballot applications for voters.”
While West Virginia allows in-person, no-excuse early voting before elections, voters must provide a reason for casting an absentee ballot. Bowman and Ramey agreed to mark applications to say that residents could not vote in person because of travel or employment, “regardless of whether those reasons were true,” Ramey’s plea agreement said.
Besides indicating false reasons on some applications, Ramey also failed to provide any reason on others, the filing said. Through his plea agreement, Ramey admitted that he knew that both actions were illegal.
Ramey learned shortly before the May primary that opposing candidates planned to contest the results by alleging illegal absentee voting. He then persuaded an unidentified county clerk employee to mark reasons on the 20 or so applications he had filed without any, the filing said. As a commissioner, Ramey later certified the primary results despite his knowledge of the fraud.
Complaints about absentee votes emerged immediately after the primary. A state circuit judge later reversed Bowman’s win by throwing out more than 300 contested absentee ballots.
Both Whitten and Bowman resigned after prosecutors charged them this January, as part of plea agreements. Ramey falsely told the FBI agent the following month that someone altered the applications without his knowledge or involvement.
Bowman and Whitten pleaded guilty in March, and await sentencing Aug. 29. Bowman admitted to conspiracy, while Whitten said he lied to an investigator for Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s elections chief, as her office scrutinized the influx of absentee ballots.
“With Mr. Ramey’s guilty plea, we believe we have convicted all the most important participants in the fraudulent absentee ballot scheme in Lincoln County,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in a statement Wednesday. “That said, our investigation will continue until we confirm that everyone whose conduct warrants prosecution has been charged.”
County resident James Matheny was also found guilty in May on assault and brandishing charges, after prosecutors say he threatened an FBI agent and a Tennant investigator with a gun as they inquired about the absentee ballot plot.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby, who has helped oversee the election fraud prosecutions, outlined Ramey’s plea agreement to Johnston. Resigning in advance of Wednesday’s hearing, Ramey has also agreed to stay out of politics for 10 years. As with Bowman and Whitten, Ramey must cooperate with investigators as well under the terms of his plea deal.
Before becoming a commissioner, Ramey had won election to the county school board. The Harts native has also been the director of Challenge West Virginia, which describes itself as a statewide group advocating for small community-based schools.