Dishonest politicians plague southern West Virginia - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Dishonest politicians plague southern West Virginia

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After a Mingo County Circuit Court judge and a county commissioner were arrested and indicted on unrelated charges, some Williamson residents were concerned about their government, asking why here — why does this keep happening in Mingo County? 

Unlike previous Southern West Virginia cases which alleged vote buying, the two recent indictments charge Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden with attempted extortion and Judge Michael Thornsbury with conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of another person. 

Both men maintained their innocence in an Aug. 21 arraignment hearing in Charleston federal court. Baisden's trial is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 15. 

Thornsbury, meanwhile, pleaded "absolutely not guilty." His trial is set for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 21.

A long history

This isn't the first time allegations of corruption in government have surfaced in Southern West Virginia. Many allegations in the past centered on elections, however. 

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry wrote the book "Don't Buy Another Vote, I Won't Pay for a Landslide," looking at instances of government corruption from the 1800s through 2006. 

"I've looked at the state's history from two years prior to statehood until basically where we are today," said Loughry, who is not commenting on current allegations against Thornsbury. 

"I wanted to find out if these instances of corruption are something of more recent history or from throughout our entire history," he said. "The fact of the matter is we have faced these issues from the inception of statehood." 

Loughry said one of the things he noticed is that many elections that ended up in courts because of corruption allegations weren't settled until two or three years later. 

"Many of those stories and unfortunate incidents have been passed down from generation to generation," he said. "I feel like the sort of history of political corruption of our state has cost countless opportunities for generations of West Virginians." 

 Loughry cited several corruption incidents from his book, including judges, a former governor, delegates and policemen. And in some cases, Loughry said officials were re-elected even after conviction. 

"What I like to mention to a lot of people when speaking to different groups is that from 1984-1992, there were 77 public office holders who were arrested and convicted for election-related crimes. These 77 public officials in Southern West Virginia were arrested and convicted of offenses in crimes like extortion, fraud, arson, drugs, tax evasion and countless other activities," Loughry explained. "During that time period, six sheriffs, 11 deputy sheriffs, three county commissioners, eight police officers, three mayors, two members of county school boards, two county prosecuting attorneys, four members of the West Virginia Legislature, including two Senate presidents, four lobbyists, a former governor and a multitude of other public officials were convicted of abusing their office." 

Loughry reminds people that corruption is not centered on one particular region or county — it's everywhere. 

"We can change things. It's not going to be easy," he said. "Things have changed drastically since the 1950s and '60s and things are moving in a positive direction. In some places, things aren't moving as fast as we want them to be but we are moving in a positive direction." 

Taking a stand

Remembering a time he went to Lincoln County for a book signing, Loughry said one thing stood out to him — people wanted change but they were scared to stand up. 

Loughry said that at the book signing, people wanted to talk with him about election violations and times when residents sold their votes. 

"It was a very educational day," Loughry remembered. "What I found from those people is they truly did want things to change but didn't know how to get there. They were frustrated, disappointed, jaded — but mostly, they felt helpless. 

"‘These people want a better government, not just for themselves but for their children. Many of them are afraid based on stories from their parents and grandparents of the way things used to be decades ago." 

When writing his book, Loughry said he anticipated threats.

"I have received several threats early on, but the book was extremely important for me to write," he said. "My point is if you wind the clock forward several years, in spite of the book or because of the book, I was still elected to a statewide office on the state Supreme Court. I hope this sends a message that you can stand up for what you believe in." 

Hope for the future

With previous instances of corruption and new allegations surfacing, some state officials and county officials said it's important not to have a fatalistic attitude about government or elected officials. 

Loughry said it's easy to get discouraged when looking back at West Virginia's history of corruption. 

"I want to make two points very clear," said Loughry. "When we point out all instances of corruption, it has to be noted that the vast majority of average citizens and elected officials are not corrupt. Our history has shown a minority of individuals who have controlled the majority for countless generations and has caused all of us to be painted with the same negative brush." 

West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin said in talking with judges throughout the state that many judges are unhappy, frustrated or saddened by current allegations. 

"I think that that's what would be expected because we hope it's not seen as a reflection on the hard work judicial officers do on a daily basis," Benjamin said. 

"This is only the second time in the state's history where a judge has been in a similar situation in the state," Benjamin said, referring to judges with felony charges. "We've had literally hundreds, perhaps even thousands of justices, judges, family court judges and magistrates serving the people of this state. They do it with the desire to help and to help people achieve justice. They do it for less money than paid in other states. They do it in the middle of the night, on holidays. They serve on a day-to-day basis and they don't always get credit for it. Unfortunately, when allegations like this come out, it encourages focusing on the negative." 

Benjamin said he thinks it is important to focus on the good. 

"I encourage people to look at the wonderful work done by judges on a daily basis like the truancy programs, access to justice and all the other programs that serve people on a day-to-day-basis," Benjamin said. 

Mingo County Commissioner Greg "Hootie" Smith said he hates to see embarrassment brought upon Mingo County but wanted to assure county residents, in particular, of their government. 

"I take the job very seriously," he said. "I believe in public service and it has been difficult because it deals with people that I have close associations with and consider friends."

"You know, these are very difficult times in county government and I can understand people's concern but people should rest assured that there are elected officials that have the best interests of Mingo County at heart that they can trust and believe in," Smith added.