By RON GREGORY Staff Writer HAMLIN - Confirming rumors that had spread throughout the county a few weeks ago, reliable sources have told The Lincoln Journal that the investigation into the May 11 Democrat primary has reached as far as the local post office.
In the days leading up to the primary, sources told The Journal that absentee ballots and/or absentee ballot applications had been found in an area postal facility.
Those who spoke of the issue prior to the primary said as many as 50 of the forms were discovered.
The Journal did not report the rumor because it could not confirm that the ballots had actually been found in a postal facility.
Now, however, more than one source, speaking on condition of anonymity, have confirmed that representatives of the federal and state governments visited the Hamlin post office about three weeks ago regarding the election issue.
"There were agents from the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), secretary of state's office and postal inspectors all there at one time," one of the sources said.
Patrons of the Hamlin post office had told the newspaper that, when they arrived at the post office on the day mentioned, they saw numerous people at the post office who are not normally there.
One of those who contacted the paper said those inside the office had come "in big, black cars."
The reliable sources said the agents were interested in questioning post office employees and "looking at records and other information relative to what was found in that post office box before the election."
One of the sources said it was "clear they were interested in the election and what went on with those ballots."
Absentee ballots have been at the center of the controversies surrounding the primary. On the surface, at least, many questioned why Lincoln County, with a population of less than 23,000 people, had more than 600 absentee ballots cast while a county such as Kanawha, with 190,000 citizens, had less than 200.
Eventually, the complaints about the extraordinary number of absentee ballots led to allegations of impropriety. Two of the candidates in the Democrat primary have filed official challenges to the election results, based largely on the absentee ballots. Phoebe Harless and incumbent Circuit Clerk Charles Brumfield were election day winners in the primary but when the absentee ballots were added in election night, Harless lost to incumbent County Commissioner Thomas Ramey Jr. and Brumfield fell to Sheriff Jerry Bowman.
Harless and Brumfield have pointed out that absentee ballots went 90 to ten percent in favor of their opponents, calling the outcome questionable. Their attorney, Harvey Peyton of Nitro, has said that absentee ballots should normally follow the pattern of election day votes.
For their part, supporters of Ramey and Bowman have maintained that their candidates simply campaigned harder than their opponents, making more contact with those eligible to cast absentee ballots. Ramey himself has called the absentee ballots a "grassroots election technique."
One Ramey and Bowman supporter said the absentee ballots did not mirror the election day results because negative publicity about the absentee ballots caused voters on election day to swing from their candidates to Harless and Brumfield.
Rumors have spread throughout the county since the election and many have appeared to be erroneous. It has been difficult to confirm that investigations are even underway, especially from the secretary of state's office. There, officials have noted that state law forbids them from confirming an investigation is underway under penalty of law.
Federal agents are always tightlipped concerning their investigations, although former United States Attorney Chuck Miller confirmed earlier that his office was "looking into" questions surrounding the Lincoln County primary. His successor, Booth Goodwin, has said that whatever investigation was being done under Miller will continue with his leadership. The U.S. Attorney utililizes the services of the FBI for investigations.
The reliable sources who confirmed the post office visit said it was not difficult to know that the agents were interested in the election. "About anyone who walked to the counter that day could have overheard some of the conversations," said one source. "I personally know that the ballots were discussed."
The Journal did not contact postal service employees who are forbidden by federal law from disclosing confidential information.
Confirming that the investigation reached the Hamlin post office, however, adds to the intrigue of the May primary and appears to confirm that absentee ballot applications and/or ballots were, in fact, available at locations other than the courthouse.
Supporters of Ramey and Bowman have said that absentee applications were taken to the homes of those who are known to be ill and others who were known to be out of town on election day. School Board President Carol Smith, a Ramey supporter, told a recent meeting of the county commission that she was "proud" to have assisted some of her former patients (Smith is a nurse) in voting absentee ballots.
Others speaking at the same meeting appeared to confirm that they had taken absentee applications to people.
"The presence of three sets of government investigators at the Hamlin post office proves they are taking this thing very seriously," said one of the reliable sources. "At the very best, I bet they'll get to the bottom of what happened with those ballots."