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One town, one vote; Little Big Man

Franklin B. Thacker Jr. lives in a trailer a few miles outside Appalachia, a worn-out mountain town in the southwest corner of Virginia. Thacker, who is 40, isn’t much for going out. He broke his neck ten years ago in a mining accident, and he spends his days living "bed to the couch." But, one day in January 2005, Thacker got himself a bulletproof vest. Not just any bulletproof vest, but a combat-model flak jacket—"eight times thicker" than the standard-issue police vest. He borrowed it from a friend who had returned from active duty in Iraq, and to test its reliability, Thacker wrapped the vest around a tree in his backyard and fired at it with a 9-mm semiautomatic pistol. He planned to use the vest for trips into town.

Appalachia (population 1,771 and falling) does not seem like a particularly dangerous place: a hardscrabble place, with its trailer homes clinging to mountainsides; a remote place, with the nearest bar ten miles down the road; but not the sort of place that requires donning a Baghdad-ready bulletproof jacket. The source of Thacker’s anxiety was Appalachia’s mayor, a heavy-set Air Force veteran named Ben Cooper. During his second mayoral term, Coopercon solidated power in Appalachia to the point that he personally controlled all town services and dominated the town council. Like areal-life Boss Hogg, he was de facto chief of the police department, and police officers harassed Cooper’s enemies. Thacker was not the only one in Appalachia living in fear. The volunteer fire chief was constantly looking in his rearview mirror for trailing police cars. A former town councilor and her husband kept a journal of threats they had received and wondered if Cooper’s Chevy Blazer would follow them up into the holler again. The former town manager figured it was best to just stay out of town altogether.

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 Appalachia police officers on a raid of his home, where they spent three hours ransacking it before leaving with more than $1,000 in cash and a valuable collection of silver coins. Thacker wasn’t arrested, but his water was shut off the next day.

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 Appalachia can breed main-street megalomaniacs like Ben Cooper. Cooper used the absentee ballot, an innovation meant to expand the reach of democracy, to subvert it. And, because of Appalachia’s isolation and small size, Cooper’s power wasn’t limited to a single city ward or counterbalanced by other political forces. Cooper didn’t just steal the election—he stole Appalachia itself.

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 Kentucky border. What most impresses a first-time visitor is the coal. For several years, the region has been riding what one young miner told me was Virginia’s "last big coal boom," and the nonstop traffic of big-rig coal haulers along Main Street is the principal feature of downtown. With every breath, I could taste the bituminous clouds the trucks leave behind. Black dust seeped under the doors and collected on storefronts and under roof eaves, forming permanent shadows.

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 Main Street is Appalachia’s center of activity. Nearby is a small park dedicated to local miners, with crosses engraved next to the names of six men who were killed on the job. At the west end of Main Street are the giant empty silos of an abandoned deep mine, and across from the mine are two convenience stores—the only places to sit at a tabletop and chat over a cup of coffee. There are no longer any restaurants in Appalachia or any bars. There was never a public library. The most prominent building downtown, by far, is an eight-story former luxury hotel converted years ago into an apartment tower for senior citizens.

Cooper, who is 64, lives in Old Bottom, a neighborhood of closely bunched bungalows that is considered Appalachia’s upscale district. When Appalachia was the commercial hub for the company-owned coal camps in the area, this was where the professional class built their homes, just across the railroad tracks from Main Street. Cooper lives with his elderly mother in the same white cottage he grew up in, on the same street where, as a boy, he used to shoot out the streetlights. Cooper’s father owned a hardware store and was a town magistrate, a man of some standing back when Appalachia was still a town of some importance. But, by the time Cooper retired to Appalachia in the late ‘90s after a career in the Air Force, the town had shrunk to less than half its size. The local economy no longer functioned on coal’s boom-and-bust cycles but rather the steady, predictable flow of pension checks and disability payments. Drug abuse, specifically of prescription painkillers like OxyContin, was common, and Wise County’s suicide rate was twice the state average. For someone like Cooper, with an excess of time and a lofty sense of himself, Appalachia didn’t offer many paths to prominence. There was, however, Town Hall.

Government responsibilities in Appalachia are more or less limited to water, sewers, some road repair, a seven-man police force, and a public swimming pool. It’s a simple,

$1 million operation, essentially the size of a mom-and-pop business. Around the time Cooper came back to town, scandal hit Appalachia. The IRS was hounding Town Hall about unpaid employee taxes, and the chief of police was charged with embezzling from the police coffee fund. Into the mire stepped Cooper. Fashioning himself Appalachia’s loudest citizen watchdog, he appeared at every monthly meeting of the town council, shouting for police overtime schedules and the details of town contracts, and inundating the town offices with record requests. In 2000, Cooper’s zeal won him election to the five-person council. A council majority selected him mayor, a mostly ceremonial post that paid $50 per month.

Last year was, all in all, a humiliating time for Appalachia. Headlines about the pork-rind election became punch lines on Jay Leno and the "John Boy & Billy" radio show. When I stopped by his house, Cooper wouldn’t talk to me; but, perhaps because of the embarrassment he brought to the town, I found that people in Appalachia were eager to talk about him. The first thing they tended to mention was how he thought he was better than everyone else—how, when there had been a restaurant in town, Cooper would sit at a table, stretch his legs into the aisle, fold his hands over his stomach, and chew on a toothpick, perfectly relaxed, "as if he has control over wherever his presence is," as one person who campaigned for him put it.

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 Appalachia had known before, which, no doubt, reassured some. In the old days, the coal companies set the pace of everyday life in Appalachia, and not much happened without their say-so. Still, some people, like the former volunteer fire chief, Robert Anderson Sr., were disturbed by Cooper’s reach. "He wanted full control of the town and everything that worked in it," Anderson told me.

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.

In Appalachia politics, power is fleeting. It only takes a one-vote shift in the five-seat council to lose a governing majority, and, in 2002, although his own seat hadn’t been up for election, Cooper was back to being a lowly town councilor. There was no clear issue in the race that year, although Cooper’s refusal to find someone other than himself to be town manager might have had something to do with it. Bush was mayor again, and the reconstituted council selected a new town manager, a brusque man named Vern Haefele. But, after almost two years running the town, Haefele began to get on some people’s nerves. Cooper saw an opportunity and launched his2004 mayoral campaign.

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 Inman Village, voters were promised free grocery items and drugs and booze, and then they were shuttled to Appalachia’s recreation center, the town’s only polling site. Once there, a Cooper operative illegally stationed inside the building escorted voters to a booth and either instructed them on how to vote or simply voted in their place.

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 Appalachia, oversight amounted to Cooper’s two buddies on the council. With their support, he was once again mayor, once again acting town manager, and his interim appointment was effectively permanent.

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 Anderson. "You stop your car, they stop their car. You go to the grocery store, they wait in the parking lot for you." Anderson himself was arrested one night at his home for violating the town’s leash law. Former town council or Rick Bowman, one of those whom the police would follow, had his tires slashed. Cooper also served as his own one-man KGB—touring around town in his truck with night-vision goggles and shotgun microphones attached to the dashboard. One night, another former town councilor caught him parked in the road below her house, staring up toward it with binoculars.

It took almost two years for the election plot to fully unravel. Just before the vote, a woman who lived in Inman Village complained to county officials after one of the Sharretts told her that her ballot already had been taken care of—even though she hadn’t voted. The Roanoke Times discovered more instances like hers in Inman, and, almost 18 months after the election, a county judge handed the case to special prosecutors. Only then did investigators examine all the absentee ballots from the election side by side. They discovered that not only were many of the ballots filled out in red ink, but many of them also appeared to be filled out in the same hand.

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 Wise County courthouse, Cooper pleaded guilty or no contest to 243 felony charges related to electoral fraud. He is scheduled to be sentenced on January 18, when he faces a possible 21 years in prison. Avoiding trial was probably wise. During the October trial of one of his alleged co-conspirators, the jury was presented a photo of Cooper juxtaposed with an image of Boss Hogg. The idea was to highlight the similarities.

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 Main Street, which was not being regularly cleaned. Coal dust mixed with mud and then congealed into a black froth that rose to the curbs. It then hardened like concrete.

Appalachia’s new mayor is Eddie Gollaway. I bumped into him one afternoon at Town Hall. Gollaway is a squat 51-year-old trucker and mechanic; he was dropping by after a day at the garage and was wearing a camouflage cap and a greasy blue work shirt. The election business is shameful, he told me. For that, he mostly blames the Sharretts and the people in Inman Village who received the small bribes. "The lower class can be better," he said, "but they don’t want to."

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 Appalachia, Cooper’s behavior went too far. But it wasn’t outrageous.

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 Main Street. Gollaway thought the encrusted coal dust that had piled up after Cooper left office made it look like a slum.

"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 Appalachia’s downtown spotless. Pure and simply spotless."

David Morton is a Washington D.C.-based writer.