Contentious races in Mingo County heat up before primary - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Contentious races in Mingo County heat up before primary

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WILLIAMSON, WV - One could say beef is on the ballot in Mingo County as some local races continue to sizzle.

Mingo County Commissioner Greg 'Hootie' Smith recently wrote a letter to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, accusing his opponent, Lonnie Hannah, of several campaign violations.

Smith's litany of alleged violations covers several topics, including hauling voters to the polls, and in return, paying them $50 or a steak dinner.

"With everything the citizens of Mingo County have been through, they have the audacity to rent a van from Louisville and to haul voters in for early voting," Smith said.

The county commissioner said the individuals on the van, rented by Hannah and his "political teammates," could either receive $50.00 checks from their campaign committee or a steak dinner.

Smith said a "paper trail" would reveal these individuals were only posing as paid election workers because they performed few duties besides voting. Paid election workers can receive up to $75.00 in payment, according to documents from the Secretary of State's Office.

But Smith said he only witnessed some of the alleged actions.

"I've seen the crews come in," Smith said. "Have I seen the checks? No."

"Did you see the steaks?" 13 News reporter Alanna Autler asked.

"No, I did not go to the steakhouse," Smith responded.

In the letter dated May 9, Smith also claimed Hannah illegally bought a billboard for Jim Harvey, a magistrate candidate. Smith wrote the sign amounted to $1,031.25, which exceeds the $1,000 maximum contribution.

The incumbent then alleges Harvey paid $1,031.25 to Fairway Outdoors instead of reimbursing Hannah, as stated on campaign financial statements.

Sources close to Lonnie Hannah, the former sheriff of Mingo County, call the letter "ridiculous."

Attorney Della Cline-Gentile sent 13 News a statement on behalf of Hannah.

"The letter to Natalie Tennant is a desperate attempt from Team Mingo's treasurer, Greg Hootie Smith, to maintain power and control over the people of Mingo County. Smith's complaint is not under oath as required by law and contains false allegations."

"I never gave candidate Harvey a campaign contribution, nor have I violated any election laws regarding campaign workers. However, by disclosing his false complaint to the press, Smith has committed a misdemeanor offense and 'upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than $1,000, nor more than $5,000, and shall be confined in jail not less than six months nor more than one year.' West Virginia Code 3-8-8 (3)(i)."

"I trust the citizens of Mingo County will get rid of the last remnants of Team Mingo by voting its treasurer Greg 'Hootie' Smith out of office."

The complaints came days before one of the most important elections in Mingo County history. Smith once served as treasurer for Team Mingo, a political action committee that's no longer active. Four members of the Team Mingo Political Action Committee pleaded guilty to various federal crimes in 2013. Another member, Sheriff Eugene Crum, was murdered in April 2013.

"I've been accused of being everything from a mobster to a turkey with a bromance," Smith said.

A mailer, paid for by Lonnie Hannah for Commissioner, depicts Smith and disgraced Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury as gangsters. It reads: "The Mingo Bromance: A true love for political corruption."

Smith, who has not been charged by federal prosecutors, said he's fought embattled opinions about his own reputation.

"If they desire for me to lead Mingo County, I will continue to do so," Smith said. "If they do not, I will step aside."

Spokesperson Jake Glance sent a statement to 13 News on behalf of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant:

"Protecting the integrity of our elections and upholding the rights of West Virginia voters is my number one priority. My office investigates any and all election law complaints swiftly and thoroughly and takes appropriate action to prosecute violations."

State code prohibits Tennant's office from commenting on investigations, although it probes "any and all complaints thoroughly."

Nothing in state code prohibits candidates from transporting voters to the polls, according to Glance in a previous story.

Smith said he has not been contacted by representatives of the office since he sent the letter May 9.

Hannah and Smith are both Democrats, and no Republicans are on the ballot. Two warring factions have divided the Mingo County Democratic Party for years.

Tuesday's election will decide the commissioner's race.

This is not the first time Hannah's name has nabbed headlines before an election. Arvil Runyon filed a civil suit in federal court against then-Sheriff Hannah, Deputy Joe Smith, Deputy Michael Miller and the Mingo County Commission five days before the 2012 primary. A judge later dismissed the case with prejudice in accordance with a jury verdict, ruling in favor of the defendants.