Late one October evening in 2003, the State Police raided Charlie McMillion's Wyoming County home and found more than a dozen painkillers the unemployed 54-year-old was not supposed to have.
So McMillion spilled his guts, a transcript of his State Police interview shows. He told Trooper Jason Davis that he drove to Virginia "probably two times a month" to buy OxyContin pills from a dealer. He said he sold dozens of them every month at a price of $50 for a 40 milligram pill, but never made a profit because he snorted up five or six pills a day.
"I'm on ... on them bad," McMillion said. "Yes sir, I am."
Davis wanted more, according to the transcript. He wanted dirt on a politician.
"This, would in my personal opinion, would ... would help you considerably Charlie," Davis told McMillion. "That would also help you . substantially with the U.S. attorney's office."
For more than a year, police and federal prosecutors in Southern West Virginia have been recruiting testimony about vote-buying schemes from accused criminals and convicts. The effort is legal. Prosecutors have used criminals' testimony against mobsters, murderers and drug dealers for years. But it has left the federal investigation into vote fraud open to criticism.
"You don't catch criminals, you don't catch vote buyers, you don't catch druggies, you don't catch felons with firearms with good honest people," said Kasey Warner, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. "You catch criminals with criminals."
His office is particularly focusing its recruiting efforts on drug users and dealers, because investigators believe hard drugs have replaced liquor as the substance most involved in vote-buying schemes.
"A lot of people who are buying votes are buying drugs, or are selling drugs to get money to buy votes," Warner said.
Last year, Warner began urging his assistant U.S. attorneys to ask about vote buying before formally charging a suspect with a crime. If they do not, they must fill out a form explaining why.
As a result, federal prosecutors ask almost every person they question about vote buying, according to defense lawyers.
In one recent debriefing, "the two final wrap-up questions were, 'Do you know anything about vote buying in West Virginia?' and, 'Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?'" said Mary Lou Newberger, the head of the federal public defender's office in Charleston.
At least one convict, a Lincoln County drug dealer named Wayne Watts, is trying to take advantage of the program, according to defense lawyers involved in a Lincoln County vote-buying case.
Watts, a 66-year-old who recently adopted his 6-year-old grandson, wants to reduce the three-year, five-month prison sentence he received Thursday for a firearms crime.
In the last two months, Watts has become a target for two defense lawyers in particular, Ben Bailey and Dierdre Purdy of Charleston. They say he helped investigators recruit witnesses against their client, Jackie Adkins of Harts.
"His involvement in this investigation, and its extent, goes directly to the biases and credibility of the government's witnesses," they wrote in a motion filed in U.S. District Court in December.
A Long History Of Corruption
For most of the 20th century, the towns tucked into the narrow valleys of the state's southern coalfields have been infamous for rigging elections.
The corruption has been around since at least the start of the century, when almost everybody there depended on the local coal mine for jobs, money and housing. They were paid in scrip usable only at the company store and cast ballots that were frequently already filled out to help the company's candidates.
After the coal companies replaced men with machines, political factions, often dominated by a handful of families, took control of politics. They were run by fixers, men who could help the loyal get a job, borrow money or wiggle out of legal trouble with a single phone call.
Federal prosecutors began prosecuting the factions for election law violations in the late 1960s, after a committee of Mingo County residents called for investigations into a peculiar phenomenon: the dead rising from the grave to vote.
In 1968, the Mingo County Fair Election Committee gained statewide notoriety. State politicians, including former Gov. Cecil Underwood and future Sen. Jay Rockefeller, paid visits to the committee to condemn the county's politics.
On primary day of that year, people sold their vote for $3 to $10, according to committee members. Mingo County officials threw up their hands as voters insisted on bringing in people to help them cast their ballots.
"I've never seen so many blind people in my life -- they say they couldn't see well and would have to have assistance," Mingo Circuit Clerk John Keesee said at the time.
Over the next two decades, federal prosecutors went after the political bosses and politicians for buying votes in Mingo County and elsewhere. State senators, sheriffs, assessors and other elected officials found themselves accused of buying votes. Some beat the charges, others went to prison.
But the political bosses stuck around and kept telling people how to vote. In some courthouses, they still held enough sway to tell policemen which criminals they should just leave alone.
By the 1980s, drug dealers were benefiting from this political corruption. In the Mingo County town of Kermit, the powerful Preece family set up shop in a trailer near city hall and sold marijuana, LSD and painkillers as if they were hot dogs. When they ran out to get more inventory, they hung up a sign: "Out of drugs. Back in 15 minutes."
Federal prosecutors swept through Mingo County after the FBI busted the Preece family in 1985. By 1988, the county sheriff, the Kermit police chief, a Kermit City councilwoman and the school board president had been convicted of drug crimes.
Vote buying? What's that?
Most drug dealers are not the political powerhouses the Preeces were.
Many have nothing to do with politics. Some have never voted.
So last year, when prosecutors from Warner's office began asking every convict that cooperated with them about vote buying, some defense lawyers were struck by the policy.
"Generally, there's some foundation for asking, some apparent relationship," said Ben Bryant, a Charleston lawyer who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1980s. "To just ask anyone in a case on a routine basis, 'What do you know about vote fraud?' has not been done to my knowledge. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with it, though."
Warner's office began the effort a couple of years after one of its assistant prosecutors discovered during a debriefing that convicted Logan County cocaine dealer Richard A. Lowe had given a bribe to Logan County Magistrate Danny Ray Wells.
Lowe later testified at Wells' 2003 racketeering trial. U.S. District Judge David A. Faber rewarded him by cutting his prison sentence from 14 years and seven months to five years.
Of course, most of the people who come though the system seem to know little about voter fraud.
When the State Police questioned him in October 2003, McMillion, the Wyoming County man accused of selling prescription drugs out of his home, said he did not know anything.
Some convicts have even appeared startled and confused when asked about it.
Charleston lawyer Troy Giatras still remembers when a federal prosecutor asked one of his clients, a Charleston crack dealer, for information on vote buying.
"He looked at the prosecutor like, 'Vote buying, what's it going for?'" Giatras said. "The guy had a befuddled look on his face because he didn't know what the answer to the question was."
'I'm Not Sure It's Going To Work'
Federal prosecutors are gambling by looking to criminals for help in their election fraud investigation, defense lawyers say.
Although prosecutors have long used convicts to take down drug dealers, con men and mobsters, it is unclear how juries would react to a drug dealer testifying about political corruption.
"When it's drugs and drugs and drugs, when everybody's involved in the same things, it seems more accessible and palatable," said Newberger, the federal public defender. "But when you're using the drug dealers, and we're not addressing their drug problems, and flipping them on vote buying, I'm not sure it's going to work."
Warner, the U.S. attorney, is not worried. He said that the testimony his office gets from criminals is part of a broader "intelligence effort" to gather information about vote-buying schemes that also includes information gathered from court documents, police and law-abiding citizens.
The efforts' first test may come next month, when Jackie Adkins of Harts and Wandell "Rocky" Adkins of Ferrellsburg stand trial for vote buying.
Jackie Adkins' lawyers, Bailey and Purdy, hope to discredit the federal prosecutors' case by focusing on their relationship with Wayne Watts, the Lincoln County drug dealer now facing a three-year, seven-month prison sentence for a gun crime.
In recent months, Watts has "done extensive work" on a federal investigation, according to assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Lowe.
Watts has mostly been trying to get neighbors and relatives to testify about vote-buying schemes in Lincoln County, according to a motion Bailey and Purdy filed in U.S. District Court in January.
Bailey and Purdy believe he has been working closely with investigators. He was "present while government agents interviewed at least one government witness," they wrote in a motion filed in December.
They say Watts' involvement in the case makes them wonder about the credibility of the government's witnesses.
Could they be testifying that they sold their vote to Jackie Adkins because they want to help Watts win a shorter prison sentence?
For now, answers to such questions are evasive.
Karen George, the assistant U.S. attorney overseeing the Lincoln County investigation, said she could not comment on Watts' role in the investigation or the government's witnesses.
State Police Trooper Anthony Perdue, one of the lead investigators, declined to comment.
And Watts is staying silent. His lawyer, Gregory Courtright, said his client still hopes the government will give him a shorter sentence as a reward for his cooperation.
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