Small Town Political Corruption in Botetourt County, VA

After serving on my local Republican Committee and, eventually as its Vice Chairman, I was encouraged to run for a position on the Board of Supervisors.  In Botetourt County (Southwest VA), our County is divided into 5 Districts, each serving between 5000-6000 residents.  Our Board’s members have staggered 4 year terms, 3 Supervisors up for election, followed two years later by the election of the other two Supervisors.

I won the Valley District in the election of November 2003 as a political newcomer despite my opponent being hand picked by his predecessor who also served as his campaign manager. Running on a campaign of Open Government, Integrity, low taxes and new ideas, I won with over 55% of the vote. I served on the Board for two terms, ran for re-election in 2007 unopposed and served back to back terms as Board Chairman (never done before) as well as Vice Chairman for two years. During my tenure, I made the motion to lower the County’s real estate tax rate by 10 cents per $100 of assessed value but saw it reduced to 5 cents per $100 by a vote of the other Supervisors. I was also responsible for moving the Board’s meeting hours to afternoon/evening vs morning/afternoon, thereby making it more accessible for those who worked and wanted to attend the meetings.

Although there were some conflicts over the years between me and 1 or 2 other board members, we all got along until the Spring of 2011. During the School Board Budget Meetings (I served on that Board for 7 years), I discovered that County employees’s benefits were significantly higher than those of school employees. When I began to check into the specifics of those benefits, it ruffled some feathers, particularly with one Board Member, Terry Austin, who represented the Buchanan District. To my amazement, I discovered that County employees enjoyed benefits unheard of in the private sector as follows:

  • Up to 8 weeks of paid time off after only one year of service which included two weeks vacation, 12 paid holidays and 15 sick days that could be carried over indefinitely.
  • 100% reimbursement of the single rate on health insurance plus between 75-92% of dependent coverage depending on whether it covered just spouse, children or family.
  • No increase in employee out of pocket cost for dependent coverage in 18 years!
  • 100% paid retirement plan with no employee contribution and a 7.5% rate of return guaranteed on money invested for them.

When I found out this information, I asked the Board to do a Pay and Benefits Study of like sized counties in the Commonwealth of VA to see how ours compared. Although that motion was approved on a 4:1 vote, to this day, nearly 3 years later, that study has yet to be done. One Board member (Austin) publicly accused me of trying to sabotage County employees and took it on himself to put forth a Board resolution full of praise for the employees. Then, as a member of the County Budget Committee, he proposed a 2% pay raise for county employees even though County Staff had presented the budget with no pay raises, citing shrinking state revenues, a shortfall in the VRS (State Retirement Plan) and unfunded mandates passed on to counties by the State.

After the Public Hearing on the budget in May 2011 where the presentation included a foreboding outlook for the next few years, we had a full meeting of the Board with the Budget Committee where we were told that “Presto” we suddenly had a $5 Million Budget Surplus over and above our required reserves and that we “could easily afford” this pay increase at a cost of $1.1 million including the same 2% for teachers.

I and another Conservative Board Member questioned where this surplus came from and were told by Staff and the two Supervisors on the regular budget committee (Austin and Clinton) that we were aware all along that the surplus would be there.

At our Board meeting in May, I voted against the pay increase but was outvoted 3:2. At our July meeting, the County Finance Director advised that we had ended our fiscal year (June 30, 2011) with a $4.65 Million Surplus. However, in a closed session of the Board in the August meeting, while discussing the potential sale of a County owned asset, we were encouraged to proceed with the sale because “we really don’t have a $4.65 Million surplus”.

From that point on, there was a concerted effort by Buchanan District Supervisor Austin and the new GOP Chairwoman, to recruit someone to run against me and they stacked the Mass Meeting to deny me the Republican Nomination – a two term Conservative Republican! After a couple of days with dozens of folks encouraging me to run as an Independent, I got the paperwork and began collecting signatures with the help of a few close friends. The Mass Meeting was held the evening of August 11 and the deadline for obtaining the required 125 signatures was August 23rd.

Botetourt County was also in the middle of Redistricting and one of my Circulators, Mr. Doug Gimbert, was right on the line of where that redistricting occurred. The County did not notify anyone who had been redistricted until two weeks before the November 8 election so lots of people did not know which district they were in nor their voting precinct. Doug had heard that his home might have been affected by the Redistricting but had no formal notification. The night of the mass meeting on Aug. 11th, members of the Electoral Board were present with their computers and, when Doug went to register, he was told he was in my district (Valley). Numerous others were mistakenly told that they were in one district when, in actuality, they were in another. It was more mass confusion than a mass meeting.

Working diligently, I amassed 199 signatures and forwarded them to a friend, Mr. Mark Tyson, who checked them against the State Board of Elections (SBE) VERIS website to confirm whether they were qualified voters in my district. The morning of August 23rd, we double checked them again and, co-incidentally, Mr. Gimbert’s name was one of the last one’s we checked. Their website clearly showed him in the Valley District.

We presented the documentation to the Registrar’s office even noting that, of the 199 signatures submitted, we could only verify 175 as valid voters. Being in our August Board meeting the remainder of the day, I had asked for notification from the Registrar’s office to notify me if there were any problems with my submission. At approx. 3:30 that afternoon on a scheduled break, I had a voice message from the Deputy Registrar, that I had qualified with 125 valid signatures. At another break around 5:00 pm, I phoned the Registrar and asked her if she could confirm that I had qualified to be on the ballot. She said “yes”. I further asked her how many of the names did she qualify and she responded that the system would only allow you to input 125 valid names, thereafter locking you out from inputting additional ones. Remember this fact!!

That afternoon, the Registrar’s office released to the Press that I had qualified to be on the Nov. 8th ballot as an Independent Candidate. Now is where the fun begins. The GOP Chair, not wanting my approval to stand, then took Mr. Gimbert’s Mass Meeting registration to the Registrar and to the Commonwealth Attorney, Joel Branscom, accusing Mr. Gimbert of falsifying the affidavit on the back of the candidate petition, claiming that he knew that he had been redistricted into Blue Ridge from my district, Valley. After two full days, I was contacted on Friday afternoon just before 5:00 pm the Vice Chair of the electoral board, advising that I was being disqualified because Gimbert’s petitions were being thrown out, leaving me 9 signatures short of the required 125. Keep in mind that the SBE’s guidelines for Registrar’s mandates that they first check the circulator’s credentials and establish that they are a qualified voter in the district of the candidate.

Preparing to leave town for a week, I asked them to hold off and that I would have a response in their hands on the very next Monday morning. Although I was out of town, I had a rebuttal delivered to the Electoral Board and to the Registrar’s offices that morning as promised. I had specifically asked that they not notify the Press until they had contacted me regarding my rebuttal. However, a reporter contacted me in another State and advised that Botetourt County’s Commonwealth Attorney Branscom had been on a news broadcast criticizing me for not following the rules and stating that he “had disqualified me”. Nowhere does it give the Commonwealth Attorney this power – his job is strictly advice and consent to the Electoral Board and the Registrar. He also announced that he was launching a State Police Investigation – after he had disqualified me!!!

Only later would I find out that the Police Investigation would not even consider my charges of election tampering and collusion but was narrowly drawn to go after Mr. Gimbert and charge him with a felony that could send him to jail for up to 10 years in addition to a fine of thousands of dollars. The Police Investigator told me directly that Gimbert was the only focus of the Investigation and that the Commonwealth Attorney is the one who sets the focus. Branscom later was quoted that he never limited the scope of the investigation – a blatant lie! This was pure and simple political retribution for my challenging him and the Electoral Board and the Registrar.

Only after the election did we know for sure why there was such a concerted effort to remove me from the ballot, thereby ensuring my defeat at the polls. Barely 6 months after declaring we had a $4.65 Million surplus, the new Board and staff declared that the county was facing a $4 million deficit and that they may have to close schools, shutter athletic programs and lay off teachers – a swing of nearly $9 million! They then pushed thru the largest tax increase in Botetourt County history – $2.3 million. Did they use this tax increase to mitigate the supposed $4 Million budget deficit? No, but turned right around and gave County employees a 5% pay raise and teachers an 8% raise which cost some $4 million!

To this day, they have refused to answer where the $9 million went or whether the “surplus” was a fabrication to justify the pay increase for public employees and teachers.

We subsequently wrote letters and sent packages to the FBI, Dept of Justice, State Board of Elections, Attorney General, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Amazingly, we have absolute proof that:

  • The County Registrar illegally used wite-out on my petition signatures to hide her original approval of Gimbert as a qualified voter and circulator – a clearly illegal act.
  • That the State Board of Elections conspired with the Electoral Board and the Registrar to move the “flip date” for redistricting of Botetourt County, specifically to disqualify me.
  • That the Registrar went into the SBE’s Voter Registration website and manually manipulated it to show that she had originally approved 126 voters – an impossibility by the SBE’s own admission.

We also have proof that in the November 2009 election, the Electoral Board and the Registrar conspired to approve then candidate Austin for Buchanan District as an Independent candidate even though he had less than 70 of the required 125 required valid signatures. In addition, by turning in paperwork which had 9 signatures added a week after his own wife notarized the petition, we believe that he is guilty of fraud! Austin also included 4 petitions that were notarized by his spouse which is a clear violation of the Virginia Notary Act, thereby nullifying all of those signatures. When this was brought to the Commonwealth Attorney’s attention, I asked him if I could request an investigation of fraud and his response was “I’m not sure”.

I contend that there is and has been a collusion among what we refer to as the “Courthouse Gang” in Botetourt County. We believe that this consists of two Board Members (Austin and Clinton, now both off the Board as of 12/31/13), Commonwealth Attorney Branscom, the Electoral Board (3 members, one of which is Austin’s personal and corp. atty. and another, his campaign treasurer in 2009), the former GOP Committee Chair, the editor of the local paper (Fincastle Herald) and even a sitting Judge in Botetourt County. This case is begging for an Independent Prosecutor to dig into clear cut cases of election tampering, malicious prosecution, and fraud among a number of other illegal activities. If we ever hope to have free and fair elections in this country, this cannot be allowed to stand.