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Judge: Let's air details of fraud

Public has right, Colton says in Ophelia Ford election case

A judge said Monday he thinks the public is owed a more detailed explanation about an alleged plot by three poll workers to throw a 2005 election to Ophelia Ford, now a state senator.
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    Shelby County Criminal Court Judge John P. Colton took guilty pleas earlier this month from the three election workers who avoided jail time in a deal with prosecutors.

    The workers admitted to voting fraud charges against them, yet never said what motivated them to fake at least three votes, two of them cast in the names of dead people.

    "I think the public has a right to know exactly what went on,'' Colton told The Commercial Appeal in a rare interview involving a case before him.

    Colton said he considered not accepting the guilty pleas because no public explanation was given for the election workers' motives. He said he's speaking publicly now because of the case's importance.

    "Voting to me is a high honor this country has,'' the judge said. "When it's desecrated, it makes me sad and it makes me shudder.''

    Prosecutors say there's no evidence that Ford or anyone else was involved in the plot that helped the Memphis Democrat eke out a 13-vote win over Republican challenger Terry Roland in a September 2005 special election for the vacant District 29 state senate seat.

    "There is no indication that this involves some broader conspiracy to steal the election," said Dist. Atty. Gen. Bill Gibbons. "If it had gone to trial, there would be no evidence to the contrary."

    Following a newspaper investigation of the close vote, Senate leaders cited the fake votes and other irregularities when deciding to void the election and toss Ford from the Senate. In a rematch in last November's general election, Ford beat Roland in a landslide.

    Since resuming office in January, Ford, 56, has gripped Tennessee with a new rumpus, a tale involving a fall from a bar stool, a puzzling public tirade and an illness that's caused her to miss much of this legislative session.

    The senator told WMC-TV News last week that she suffers from chronic anemia. She admitted to falling off a bar stool at Nashville's Downtown Sheraton across from Legislative Plaza, saying the episode was triggered by her anemia and by "not eating.''

    Roland said Ford's actions are a disservice to voters in District 29, which stretches from South Memphis to Millington.

    "Let's face it, we're not being represented,'' said Roland, who was equally critical of the deal that poll workers struck with Gibbons' office.

    "They'll never make me believe there wasn't some kind of (larger) conspiracy here,'' Roland said. "I don't think justice was served.''

    In a plea deal entered May 10, alleged ringleader Verline Mayo admitted to 10 felonies, including voter fraud, making false entries on election documents and official misconduct. Mayo, 70, received the stiffest sentence: two years' probation, $1,000 in fines and 200 hours of community service.

    Codefendants Gertrude Otteridge, 65, and Mary McClatcher, 53, pleaded guilty to one felony and one misdemeanor each and were sentenced to one year probation plus fines and community service.

    With felony voting fraud convictions on their records, they can't ever work the polls again, nor will they be able to get their voting rights restored.

    "We felt it was a good resolution for the community,'' said Asst. Dist. Atty. Linda Kirklen, who said prosecutors considered the defendants' ages and other factors when striking the deal.

    Kirklen said investigators have no evidence anyone else was involved and don't know what motivated Mayo, a longtime election official and Democratic Party activist to influence the others to commit fraud.

    "That is the big question,'' Kirklen said. The indictment charged only that Mayo acted "with the intent to obtain a benefit in the form of additional votes for senatorial candidate Ophelia Ford," but didn't say why.

    Mayo didn't respond to two messages left on her home phone seeking comment.

    Prosecutors declined to release an investigative report compiled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

    The TBI probe followed an investigation by The Commercial Appeal that found that someone had forged the names of two deceased elderly voters to cast ballots in the District 29 race. The newspaper found that other votes were cast in the names of voters whose addresses were vacant lots.

    The irregularities occurred in North Memphis' heavily Democratic Precinct 27-1, where Mayo had served as an Election Day poll boss for decades. The Shelby County Election Commission has since abolished the precinct, merging it with an adjacent one.

    In a series of conflicting media interviews, Mayo suggested at one point last year that then-Election Commission inspector Eddie Hayes -- who earned a living as a funeral director at the Ford Funeral home owned by Ophelia Ford's relatives -- played a role in the scandal.

    Hayes, who oversaw Precinct 27-1 and other North Memphis precincts during the Sept. 15, 2005, election, denied Mayo's assertions.

    -- Marc Perrusquia: 529-2545

    More info:

    GUILTY PLEAS

    Three former Shelby County poll workers have pleaded guilty to charges they faked votes to throw a 2005 state Senate election to Ophelia Ford.

    Verline Mayo: Admitted to 10 felony counts, including illegal voting registration, false entries on election documents and official misconduct. Sentenced to 2 years' probation, $1,000 in fines and 200 hours of community service.

    Gertrude Otteridge: Admitted to one felony count of voter fraud and one misdemeanor involving illegal registration. Sentenced to one year probation, $200 in fines and 100 hours of community service.

    Mary McClatcher: Admitted to one felony count involving illegal registration and one misdemeanor. Sentenced to one year probation, $500 in fines and 50 hours of community service.



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