Goodwin: Communities must believe corruption culture can change - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Goodwin: Communities must believe corruption culture can change

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Back in 1988, after an 18-month investigation resulted in indictments against 16 Mingo County politicos on charges ranging from drug dealing and conspiracy to bribery and vote buying, a young Michael Thornsbury told the Associated Press it was "up to the people" to pull the plug on a political culture steeped in corruption.

"They can choose the old way, or they can take the best opportunity they've had to vote good, honest candidates into office," Thornsbury, an assistant prosecutor making a run for the House of Delegates at the time, was quoted as saying on the eve of the election.

He lost that election and then another two years later, but eventually was appointed to the bench — only to leave office in disgrace five months ago after admitting he had conspired with other elected officials to impede a federal investigation into the late Sheriff Eugene Crum, who was shot to death in front of the Mingo County Courthouse while he ate lunch in April 2013.

Thornsbury is scheduled for sentencing in April. In the meantime, additional charges that he used his office to try to frame the husband of his secretary, with whom he'd allegedly had a short-lived romance, were dropped as part of his plea agreement in the other case and he is now cooperating with authorities as they continue to probe alleged corruption in Mingo County.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin is quick to point out it's not just a West Virginia problem.

"It's like Lord Acton said, ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely,'" said Goodwin, whose office led the investigation that began to unravel the Mingo County ball of corrupted yarn.

"I think anywhere you have close to absolute power you're going to find corruption, and that's not limited to the Southern District of West Virginia," he said. "While we've had some high profile cases related to corruption, we're not alone — you can look across the state line and see systemic corruption in Eastern Kentucky.

"You can see it in Washington, D.C., in New Jersey … it's not just West Virginia, though we've certainly had our fair share."

Fair share

No political office in the Mountain State, it seems, has been immune to allegations of corruption.

Over the years former governors, state senators, delegates, judges, circuit clerks, lottery commissioners, magistrates, county commissioners, sheriffs, police chiefs, an attorney general, a senior center director, even a fire chief and his wife have found themselves in the FBI's investigative cross-hairs. Some were tried and convicted — many admitted it.

Before he was elected to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Allen H. Loughry II authored a book about the history of political corruption in West Virginia, "Don't Buy Another Vote. I Won't Pay for a Landslide," in 2006.

"West Virginians almost universally have a cynical view of politics and after reviewing the history of political corruption in the state, at all levels of government, it is easy to understand those feelings," he wrote, "for if political corruption were an Olympic event, West Virginia would have won the Gold Medal many times over."

Since that book was published nearly eight years ago, Loughry has been elected to the state Supreme Court. Because of that, he will discuss corruption in West Virginia only from a historical perspective.

He said it's a problem that has dogged the Mountain State from its inception, when "election after election at the county level would go to the canvassing board, then to the Circuit Court and then the Supreme Court."

"Often, the election for something like a sheriff would take two-and-a-half years from the date of the election to have any finality," he said. "You saw charges of vote buying and graft from generation to generation, decade after decade, so it's not something new, something that's just happened in the last 10 or 20 years.

"And if you circle back to more recent history, we had a governor who set up dummy corporations to funnel millions of dollars in federal flood money back into the dummy corporations. We had a judge who was convicted of buying and selling all of the elected offices in his counties — but it was the same person who, years earlier, had contacted the FBI to ask for their help in cleaning up elections in his county."

Even President John F. Kennedy's upset win in the 1960 election is widely attributed to millions of dollars in back room deal-making and under-the-table payoffs to key party leaders in the state. And during a seven year period — 1984-1991 — a total of 77 elected officials in southern West Virginia were convicted of election-related crimes.

No different

"(But) corruption happens in every state, so West Virginia is no different in that perspective," he points out. "My book could also be written and should be written in the 49 other states, the District of Columbia and the five territories."

Goodwin, meanwhile, said public corruption "is obviously one of the most significant crimes we deal with, it goes to the very foundation of our democracy."

"When people cannot have faith in their government institutions, it creates incredibly difficult circumstances, especially when a perception of systemic corruption exists in a particular county or particular region," he said. "My emphasis on corruption goes back to my early years as an assistant U.S. attorney."

Goodwin said he prosecuted a case shortly after arriving to the U.S. Attorney's Office that became a racketeering case against Magistrate Danny Wells in Logan County.

"What ended up happening ... as we investigated that case, we uncovered his relationship with a local attorney who also happened to be a longtime former mayor of Logan," Goodwin said. "We approached that individual, he entered into a plea agreement with him and used him as a confidential informant, I think for a couple of years.

"We ran him undercover for the House of Delegates, we made dozens of recordings and ended up prosecuting dozens of individuals, including a county clerk, a county sheriff and a number of politicians in addition to that magistrate."

There have been similar prosecutions in other counties, he pointed out.

But, like the locust, the problem keeps coming back.

Stuck on repeat

As the long arm in the law in the center of the cycle for so many years, some would say it would be easy for Goodwin to lose hope.

"One of my favorite movies is ‘The Incredibles,'" Goodwin said. "It's about a group of superheroes, a family of superheroes.

"There's a monologue at the beginning, it's like an old 1950s movie reel and Mr. Incredible says something to the effect that, ‘No matter how many times you save the world, it's always manages to get in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved, you know, for a little bit? I feel like the maid; I just cleaned up this mess — can we just keep it clean for 10 minutes?'"

Goodwin said the process is frustrating, but to a certain extent, he's been encouraged.

"Invariably, I'm asked if I think we're having an effect, if prosecution is having an effect on corruption in those counties and in southern West Virginia in general," Goodwin added. "I really do think it has. You need to look no further than our most recent round of Lincoln County prosecutions.

Goodwin said his office became used to seeing and prosecuting vote buying in both Lincoln and Logan counties.

"But what we're seeing now isn't vote buying," he said. "Instead, they were using the absentee ballot process to generate hundreds of ballots that were fraudulent.

"They're definitely not vote buying, but it ended up being the kind of crime that was easier to detect and ultimately easier to prosecute for us — we found a hundred different absentee ballots filled out with the same handwriting, those sorts of things. Criminals are adapting, but they're not evolving."

A deeper problem

He said the problem goes much deeper than just public corruption.

"It's pretty much the same with every crime we work on," he said. "I often say, we can weed the garden, we can take out the bad weeds, we can even till it, but it takes people to plant the seed, grow it and restore (confidence in the political system)."

Goodwin said communities have to come together to share the message that "enough is enough.

"It hasn't really made the headlines, but every time there's a development in a public corruption case we've tried to emphasize that the last thing people should do is give up and say, ‘It's never going to change, so why should I get involved?'" he said. "In fact, what they should do — and what they must do — is demand change.

"People need to stay engaged and involved in their communities and in their governments."

Loughry, too, said the danger is that society becomes anesthetized to its problems rather than seeking solutions.

"I think it's important, particularly for the next generation of West Virginians, the younger generation, to get involved," Loughry said. "They have to be the ones to come forward to try and change things.

"What are some of the results of corruption? Voter apathy, fiscal irresponsibility, generations of distrust of government."

Loughry said the message must change.

"Are things the same as they were in the 1960s in West Virginia? Absolutely not," he said. "However, that doesn't mean we celebrate that and just move forward.

"We should always strive to have the most ethical people in place in our governmental structure."

Loughry said when he has a chance to talk to young people, "I try to encourage them and let them know they can make a difference, they can get involved."

"The one thing that non-politicians in West Virginia agree on is that the system is in need of drastic reform," Loughry wrote in 2006. "The problem, however, is that most people have such little confidence in a system that has let them down so many times that talk of reform sometimes seems like an exercise in futility. The lack of confidence in state government and elected officials is precisely why a massive overhaul of the entire system is necessary to restore integrity to the idea of public service."