Franklin B. Thacker Jr. lives in a trailer a few miles outside Appalachia, a worn-out mountain town in the southwest corner of
It didn’t take much to earn a place on Cooper’s list of enemies. Thacker made the mistake of angrily complaining to the mayor about a broken water main destroying the road outside his trailer. Three months later, an officer of the regional drug task force, allegedly at Cooper’s request, led a team of
Cooper’s "reign of terror," as one former town councilor calls it, lasted nearly two years and was made possible by one of the more brazen electoral fraud schemes in modern politics. In the run-up to his election in 2004, Cooper and at least nine conspirators targeted Inman Village— Appalachia’s largest public housing complex—and the homes of elderly people, some of whom were suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or blindness. They asked residents to fill out absentee registration forms, stole the ballots before they reached mailboxes, and then filled out the ballots themselves in favor of Cooper and two others on Cooper’s council slate. There were some extra incentives for people to signoff on the registration forms: six-packs of beer, packs of cigarettes, and, in at least one case, a bag of pork rinds. The absentee ballot conspiracy and associated capers affected perhaps one-quarter of the total votes counted—and delivered Cooper and his allies the closely contested election. When investigators fully cracked the scheme, in March 2006, Cooper and his co-conspirators’ actions resulted in 944 felony charges.
Throughout the country last year, in the tense lead-up to the midterm congressional elections, voter suspicions focused on touch-screen voting machines and their proven vulnerability to manipulation. But high-tech voting, for all the justified hand wringing that accompanies it, has yet to generate a case of criminal fraud. Almost every time electoral fraud has been discovered and prosecuted, the source of subversion has been the low-tech absentee ballot. And the most common place for absentee ballot fraud to occur is in small towns and country-road jurisdictions: places like Greensboro, Alabama (population 2, 616);Bath County, Kentucky (population 11,626); and Gate City, Virginia(population 2,072), a town just 30 miles from Appalachia, where in2004 the mayor fixed enough absentee ballots to win reelection by a margin of two votes.
We sometimes like to imagine little town halls as the cradle of American democracy, ruled by consensus and fair-dealing. We know, though, that the lack of scrutiny and oversight in small towns like
Last December, nine months after Cooper was indicted, I drove down to Appalachia, which is wedged into the southern range of the Appalachian Mountains near the
There’s not a lot of wealth coming through town with the coal trucks. Even with the recent coal spike, the mines employ only a fraction of the workers they did in the past. Most people live in small homes or trailers angled off the steep mountain slopes that squeeze the town on every side. The supermarket at the east end of
Cooper, who is 64, lives in Old Bottom, a neighborhood of closely bunched bungalows that is considered
Government responsibilities in
$1 million operation, essentially the size of a mom-and-pop business. Around the time Cooper came back to town, scandal hit
Last year was, all in all, a humiliating time for
Cooper liked playing boss. "He said, `Unless you play ball with me, I’ll cut your f’in’ legs off,’" says Gary Bush, Cooper’s predecessor as mayor. Cooper had himself appointed acting town manager, which put him in charge of the government’s day-to-day operations. Police officers were ordered to file their reports in military time. He would personally respond to emergency calls, whatever the hour, and he would often arrive on the scene before the police or the fire trucks did. Cooper also preferred to do road repair jobs himself. Once, operating a backhoe in the Little League baseball field, he accidentally pulled up some telephone wires. People told me he didn’t seem to relish the work. It was like he was afflicted with municipal obsessive-compulsive disorder, driven by the angry conviction that, in all of Appalachia, only he was up to the task of doing things right. Cooper’s mania for control carried a whiff of the bare-knuckled authority that a lot of people in
The reason that Cooper tailed the fire trucks, for instance, wasn’t to lend a helping hand. The volunteer fire department is officially independent of the town; Cooper wanted it to submit to his authority. At the scenes of fires, he stalked around with a digital camera, hoping to catch someone screwing up, evidence that might one day form the basis of a lawsuit. Only when the fire department took him to court did Cooper finally give up the chase. State police would later discover at Cooper’s house surveillance photos of firefighters going about their everyday business.
Unpopular as the town manager might have been among some folks, Cooper himself had only won his council seat by two votes four years earlier. This time around, if he were to ensure victory over Bush’s slate of candidates, he would need an extra boost. Conspirators for the absentee ballot scheme weren’t hard to find. There was an ex-police officer who was promised he would be police chief in a second Cooper regime. There was Dude Sharrett, the town parks and recreation manager, and his wife, Belinda, the town bookkeeper, both of whom stood to lose their jobs under Bush and Haefele—jobs that paid little more than minimum wage. Cooper allegedly promised Sharrett’s brothers, Boogie and Kevin, police cover for their illegal trade in prescription painkillers. Sharrett’s son Andy, a sometime contract postman, was put on Cooper’s slate. Cooper’s own brother was the town postmaster, with easy access to mailed absentee ballots, but prosecutors say they have no evidence of his involvement.
Although the absentee scheme took place in advance of the vote, the conspirators were busy on Election Day, too. A van collected residents from
Three council seats were up for grabs. Cooper’s slate took all three. Once again, he had his council majority. While it is difficult to determine with precision exactly how many votes were tainted, 108 out of 585 total ballots cast were absentee, more than three times the expected number. About 80 of those were clearly fraudulent or suspicious, says Tim McAfee, one of the special prosecutors on the case. A switch of just 35 votes would have been enough to prevent Cooper from becoming mayor.
Robust democracies have checks and balances, hearings and investigations, and sometimes a Woodward and Bernstein. In
In his new role as town tyrant, Cooper immediately set out to purge his enemies. Police began tailing the family of Anderson, the volunteer fire chief. "The police was going by your house, the mayor was going by your house," recalls
It took almost two years for the election plot to fully unravel. Just before the vote, a woman who lived in
A search of Cooper’s house turned up detailed, annotated voter lists, allegedly the blueprints of the conspiracy. "I can’t believe he kept this stuff, " says McAfee, the special prosecutor. On November 30, in the
Cooper had trouble letting go of power. When the indictments came down in March, he resigned as acting town manager, but he waited three months to quit as mayor and town councilor. For several months, it was as if no one was running the town. The impact of Cooper’s absence was particularly visible on
Gollaway was more forgiving of Cooper himself. "Ben, in his own way, was a good person, but something went wrong somewhere," he said. Appalachia’s current town manager, Fred Luntsford, didn’t want to talk about Cooper because he counts him as a friend; whenever he mentioned to me the chaos of the previous regime, he referred to" the leadership." Affection for Cooper was more common than I expected. In the context of
Prosecutors cleared Gollaway of wrongdoing in the election scheme; he is, in fact, the only councilor from Cooper’s slate who wasn’t indicted. He does, however, confess to feeling guilty by association. Last spring, to remove the taint from his reputation and to prove his dedication to the town, Gollaway came up with as cheme of his own. He borrowed a pressure washer from the county, repaired it at his garage, and then headed to
"I operated that truck, my friend," Gollaway says. "One night I spent 18 hours out here nonstop, just washing and washing and washing. This went on several weeks until we made
David Morton is a Washington D.C.-based writer.