Martin vote-buying trial begins

Ralph B. Davis rdavis@civitasmedia.com

May 8, 2014

PIKEVILLE — Thirteen people took the witness stand Wednesday, delivering at times conflicting, emotional or fearful testimony, as the Martin vote-buying trial got underway in U.S. District Court.

Former Martin Mayor Ruth Thomasine Robinson; her husband, James “Red” Robinson; her step-son, James Steven Robinson; and former Martin city employee Johnny T. Moore are under trial, after being accused in an indictment handed down in December of conspiring to swing the November 2012 Martin mayor’s race in the former mayor’s favor, by paying for votes and by threatening public housing residents with eviction if they did not vote the right way or promising them better accommodations if they did.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kenneth Taylor laid out the government’s case in his opening argument, calling the matter a “simple case.” He said the charges against the four defendants boiled down to one simple premise — that the defendants abused their power to deprive residents of their right to vote their choice in the Martin mayor’s race.

“Because of their power, they had several badges of authority, and they abused that power,” Taylor said. He further noted that former Mayor Robinson spent her years in office grabbing more and more power, in an attempt to hold on to power. “Over her tenure in office, she had accumulated a lot of unwritten, subtle powers.”

As an example, Taylor said former Mayor Robinson used her influence of the Housing Authority of Martin to pick and choose who got on the waiting list for an apartment, where certain individuals were placed on the list, and what type of apartments certain individuals got, based on what those people could do for her.

“The evidence will show she used these favors to get her way,” Taylor said.

Taylor also head off what could be seen as one key weakness in his case — the conflicting accounts witnesses gave, sometimes at odds with their own words. Taylor noted that many of those who would be testifying suffered from mental or emotional disorders, and several could not read or write. He instructed the jury to note not just what those individuals said, but who they were, because that would illustrate how the defendants preyed on the weak.

“These are the people very much at the mercy of the system, and at the mercy of people in positions of power,” Taylor said.

But Steve Owens, representing former Mayor Robinson, said the jury would be remiss in simply looking at who was testifying and discount the conflicting testimony they gave. However, he said if jurors were to look at who was testifying, they might ask themselves what motive each person had for his or her statement.

“We would ask you to look very closely at the witnesses,” Owens said. “There are issues there that may make you wonder about their motivation for testifying.”

That was a sentiment echoed by Bill Slone, who is representing James Steven Robinson.

“I want you to look at these witnesses and look at their connections,” Slone said.

Kent Varney, representing “Red” Robinson, noted that the allegations against his client were not believable because many of the witnesses have given different, conflicting accounts to authorities, depending on when they made their statements.

“Every time they talk to the government, they tell a different story,” Varney said.

Noah Friend, representing Moore, took a slightly different approach. Rather than taking issue with the entire set of allegations, Friend simply noted that his client did not occupy a place within the conspiracy. He said Moore was a simply sewer plant worker and jack-of-all-trades who had no place in the scheme and no means to profit from it.

“I want to make sure Mr. Moore doesn’t get lost in the big picture,” Friend told the jury.

Moore is accused of accompanying Cory Stephens, of Martin, into the voting booth, to make sure he cast his vote for former Mayor Robinson. When County Clerk Chris Waugh took the stand as the first witness in the trial, Friend questioned him about whether a voter could request assistance from a friend, simply due to forgetting his glasses. Waugh said that, while legally blind or illiterate voters could receive such assistance, such help would not be allowed simply because of forgotten eyeglasses.

“A person could always go back home and get their glasses, and return to vote later,” Waugh said.

However, when Stephens took the stand, he said he lied to clerks, telling them that his vision was so bad, he could not read at all. He maintained that Moore stood over his shoulder while he cast his vote.

“He [James Steven Robinson] sent Johnny into the courthouse with me, to make sure I voted for Thomasine,” Stephens said.

Another part of the government’s case is that the Robinsons used their power over residents of the housing authority, as well as tenants of properties owned by the Robinsons, to influence their votes. And he said they allegedly made good on their threats, after the election results showed former Mayor Robinson losing a close race, by sending police officers to their rental properties with letters of eviction. In his opening statement, Taylor quoted the former mayor as saying, “I told those people, if I lost the election, they would be out of my house.”

One of those people was Ruby Jean Wallen, who testified Wednesday that she received an eviction notice election night, despite having voted for former Mayor Robinson and renting from her for several years. Wallen said she followed former Mayor Robinson’s instructions concerning absentee voting, simply signing her name to a ballot that former Mayor Robinson completed.

“Me and her have been friends a long time,” Wallen said. “I just don’t understand why she set me out.”

Also testifying Wednesday was Henry Mullins, who was indicted along with Moore and the Robinsons, but reached a plea deal with prosecutors last week and pleaded guilty to one count of vote-buying.

Mullins testified that James Steven Robinson gave him $30 on Election Day to buy votes, although he said he only paid one person $10 and pocketed the rest.

The trial continued Thursday, with prosecutors expected to wrap up with their witnesses before lunch. At press time, it was not known if the trial concluded Thursday or if it would continue on Friday.