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3 District 29 poll workers indicted

Photo Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal

No evidence was found to indicate that Ophelia Ford had anything to do with an effort to throw the District 29 race her way, said Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons (above).

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Accused of faking votes to help elect Ophelia Ford

By Marc Perrusquia
June 22, 2006

Three Shelby County election workers faked votes in an effort to throw last fall's District 29 state Senate race to Ophelia Ford, prosecutors alleged Wednesday.

Unsealing an indictment that charges the trio with illegal voting, making false entries and other crimes, Shelby County Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons said the workers at now-dissolved Precinct 27-1 forged at least three votes, including two in the names of dead voters.

However, Ford, a Democrat who won a razor-thin victory only to be ousted from office in April when the Senate voided the election, wasn't involved in the plot, Gibbons said.

"There was an effort on the part of certain individuals in Precinct 27-1 to cast some illegal votes for Miss Ford, but I stress that there was nothing to indicate that she knew anything about that,'' Gibbons told reporters.

Charged are Verline Mayo, 69, the officer in charge of the precinct, and fellow Democrat Party poll workers Gertrude Otteridge, 64, and Mary McClatcher, 52. Each posted a $5,000 bond by Wednesday afternoon and were released from custody.

None of the women responded to calls Wednesday to their homes. All have been fired by the Election Commission.

The trio faces a combined 37 counts -- all but two of them felonies -- alleging they forged a variety of election documents to not only fake votes but to make it appear that two poll workers who didn't work were present for the Sept 15 election.

The indictments follow an investigation by The Commercial Appeal last winter that found someone had cast ballots in the names of Joe L. Light and Archie Kirkwood, both elderly voters who died weeks before the Sept. 15 election.

The indictment alleges the poll workers forged votes in the names of Light and Kirkwood and also in the name of a third voter -- still alive -- who records show had moved out of the district.

The election results came under intense scrutiny after Ford defeated Republican challenger Terry Roland by 13 votes in an election in which 8,748 ballots were cast.

The two competed in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Ford's brother, former state senator John Ford, who resigned following his indictment on federal bribery charges.

When Roland contested the results, alleging numbers of voting irregularities, the Senate provisionally seated Ford before ousting her in an unprecedented 26-6 vote on April 19 that voided the election.

Filing suit in federal court, Ford won an injunction in January that temporarily blocked the Senate from ousting her, a restriction later lifted by U.S. District Court Judge Bernice Donald. After her ouster, Ford filed another suit seeking reinstatement, alleging the Senate had disenfranchised black voters in her district.

Ford's lawyer, David Cocke, said he expects the indictments to have no impact on the suit.

"I don't think it would change the lawsuit at all,'' Cocke said. "As we've said from Day One, there's no evidence of any widespread (voting fraud) conspiracy.''

Ron Ramsey, the Senate Republican leader who piloted the effort to oust Ford, disagreed.

"That takes a lot of guts to say something like that. C'mon. There's obviously a conspiracy,'' said Ramsey, R-Blountville. "If anything, this justifies the Senate action. It proves we did the right thing.''

The conspiracy began to unfold in December, when Roland campaign worker John Harvey compiled a list of questionable votes, including several from voters allegedly living outside District 29 and a couple whose addresses were vacant lots.

Reviewing that list, the newspaper found that voter Light, 70, a folk artist with a registered address at 607 Looney, hadn't lived there in years. Now a vacant lot, Light's home had been foreclosed in 2000 and razed.

Then came a greater discovery -- Light had died of colon cancer on Aug. 6, six weeks before the election. The newspaper then discovered a ballot was cast in the name of a second dead voter, Archie L. Kirkwood, 72, who died Aug. 30 of hypertensive cardiovascular disease.

Despite their deaths, the signatures of both voters were written into the poll book on Sept. 15 at the Precinct 27-1 polling place on Danny Thomas in North Memphis.

When election officials asked for a criminal probe, Ophelia Ford's brother, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., stepped in.

Saying he had conducted his own investigation, Ford pointed a finger at 71-year-old Republican poll worker Martha Hensley. He said Hensley helped forge votes as part of a Republican plot to discredit his son, Harold Ford Jr., a congressman running for the U.S. Senate.

Gibbons told reporters Wednesday a probe by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found nothing to implicate Hensley in any crime.

Asked about Harold Ford Sr.'s early involvement in questioning witnesses in the case, TBI Director Mark Gwyn declined to discuss details, saying simply, "Harold Ford Sr., when contacted, did cooperate."

Gibbons said the dead-voter investigation is now concluded and no one else is expected to be charged.

The indictment doesn't detail a motive, but says that poll boss Mayo "while acting as an election official and with the intent to obtain a benefit in the form of additional votes for senatorial candidate Ophelia Ford" fraudulently recorded votes in the names of Light and Kirkwood.

In the case of Light, McClatcher filled out the ballot application while Mayo signed Light's name into the poll book and cast a ballot in the voting machine, the indictment alleges. Mayo and Otteridge faked the vote for Kirkwood, the indictment says.

The indictment charges Mayo and Otteridge also allowed voter Markesha Hinton to vote in the name of LaToya Wilson, Otteridge's daughter.

Prosecutors also filed felony charges against three felons who cast ballots in the Sept. 15 election. Gibbons said the investigation of other alleged illegal votes in the race remains open.

-- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545



Verline Mayo, 69: Officer in charge at Precinct 27-1, she's charged with 20 felony counts of illegal voting, making false entries on election documents, official misconduct and inducing others to commit illegal acts. Also faces a misdemeanor count of failing to perform an official act.

Gertrude Otteridge, 64: Election judge at 27-1, she's charged with nine felony counts of illegal voting, false entries, official misconduct and inducing others to commit illegal acts. Also faces a misdemeanor count of failing to perform an official act.

Mary McClatcher, 52: Substitute election judge, she's charged with six felony counts of illegal voting and false entries.


May 28, 2005: State Sen. John Ford, just indicted on federal bribery charges, resigns from the District 29 seat he's held for 31 years.

Sept. 15, 2005: Ford's sister, Ophelia Ford, wins by just 13 votes over Republican Terry Roland in a special election in which 8,748 ballots were cast.

Sept. 23, 2005: Roland challenges the election results, alleging a number of irregularities, including votes by felons and others living outside the district.

Dec. 10, 2005: The Commercial Appeal reports someone signed in to vote at Precinct 27-1 in North Memphis as Joe L. Light, 70, who had died on Aug. 6 -- six weeks before the election.

Dec. 14, 2005: The newspaper reports that a ballot was cast at Precinct 27-1 in the name of a second voter, Archie L. Kirkwood, 72, who died two weeks before the election.

Dec. 14, 2005: After reading the second newspaper account, Shelby County Commission chairman Greg Duckett announces he's asked for a criminal probe, saying he suspects fraud by a poll worker.

Dec. 18, 2005: Another Ford sibling, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., says in a published interview a 71-year-old Republican poll worker was behind the fraud at heavily Democratic Precinct 27-1. It was part of a plot, he said, to discredit son Harold Ford Jr.'s run for the U.S. Senate.

Jan. 17, 2006: Citing evident fraud and voting irregularities, the state Senate votes 17-14 in a preliminary move to void Ophelia Ford's election.

Jan. 18, 2006: Before the Senate can take a final vote to oust her, Ford goes to federal court and gets an injunction from U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald.

Feb. 1, 2006: Donald lifts the injunction, but cautions the Senate to move cautiously so as to not disenfranchise voters by tossing out their votes without due process.

April, 19, 2006: Voting 26-6, the Senate takes the unprecedented action of voiding the election, effectively ousting Ford from her District 29 seat.

April 25, 2006: Ford files a second federal suit, seeking reinstatement to the District 29 seat. The suit is pending.

June 21, 2006: A Shelby County grand jury indicts three poll workers at Precinct 27-1, charging them with forging ballots of dead voters Light and Kirkwood as well the ballot of a third voter, still living.

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