The Left has lobbed many false charges at Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. (C, 78%), Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general. But perhaps the most outrageous claim is that he tried to suppress African-American voters in 1985 by pursuing a voter fraud prosecution in Perry County, Alabama.
Perry County is a rural county of about 10,000 residents in west-central Alabama in an area known as the Black Belt for its dark, rich soil. Its population is majority black (68.7 percent, according to the 2010 census) and overwhelmingly Democratic (Barack Obama received 73 percent of the vote in 2008). The key to winning any local office in Perry County is to win the Democratic primary.
Perry County has long been plagued by accusations of voter fraud in local elections. As former Alabama Democratic congressman Artur Davis said, “The most aggressive contemporary voter suppression in the African American community” that he saw in Alabama was “the wholesale manufacture of ballots, at the polls and absentee, in parts of the Black Belt.”
On April 20, 1983, a local county grand jury (with a majority of black members and a black foreperson) issued a report concerning problems in the balloting process that targeted the “aged, infirmed, or disabled.” The grand jury called for the “vigorous prosecution of all violations of the voting laws” and requested “the presence and assistance of an outside agency, preferably federal, to monitor our elections and to ensure fairness and impartiality for all.”
But Sessions, the U.S. Attorney in the region, did not open a federal investigation into the 1982 election. In his Senate Questionnaire for the attorney general nomination, he explains that he was hoping it wouldn’t be necessary, that the county grand jury report would cause local activists to “conform to the law.” Unfortunately, that did not happen.
Instead, as LaVon Phillips, a black legal assistant in the Perry County district attorney’s office, later testified, his office received numerous complaints during the 1984 election cycle. Black voters and incumbent black officials reported that voters were receiving absentee ballots they had never requested. Moreover, he testified that local candidate Albert Turner was illegally picking up absentee ballots from voters.
A handwriting expert concluded that Turner had written in his own name on some of the absentee ballots. Other black voters had gone to the polls only to be told that someone had already voted in their names by absentee ballot.
What was happening? Perry County was embroiled in an intense political fight pitting one set of black Democratic candidates against another. But one side was apparently willing to do anything to win.
All of this culminated in the 1984 Democratic primary in which key county commission seats, as well as the tax assessor’s post and other local offices, were on the line. With one exception, all the serious candidates were black.
A week before the primary, Sessions said he received a call from District Attorney Roy Johnson informing him that two black Democratic candidates opposed by Turner — Reese Billingslea and Warren Kinard — “were convinced that fraud was occurring in the election.” Turner and others were collecting large numbers of absentee ballots that “were being taken to a central headquarters where the ballots were altered to ensure that they were marked for candidates endorsed by Turner.”
Billingslea and Kinard had information that the altered ballots would be taken to the county post office the night before the election to be mailed. They were “extremely concerned about the election and believed it was being stolen from them.” And sure enough, the night before the election, Turner and his wife Evelyn showed up at the post office with more than 300 ballots, while their co-conspirator Spencer Hogue, showed up with 170. All told, Turner and his minions mailed 504 of the 729 absentee ballots cast in the election.
According to Sessions, FBI analysis showed that at least 75 of the ballots had been altered, and 25 voters said they had not given their ballots to the Turners or Hogue for mailing. One African-American family of six voters (the Sheltons) testified that they had not given permission to change their votes — particularly since the candidate they had originally voted for was their cousin! Ultimately, Turner admitted changing the Sheltons’ absentee votes.
A 34-page federal grand jury indictment filed on Jan. 25, 1985 lays out in great detail the actions of the Turners and Hogue in the voter fraud case. The object of the conspiracy was to elect the candidates they had “supported and endorsed.” According to the indictment, they used Evelyn Turner’s position as a notary public to witness absentee ballots falsely in furtherance of the conspiracy.
The indictment also gives the lie to the spurious claim recently made by former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a member of the Turner/Hogue defense team. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick claims that Sessions based the case on the legal theory that it was a federal crime “for someone to help someone else to vote or to advise them how they should vote — even if and when they ask for such help.” As the indictment makes clear, that was not the theory of the case.
Neither the Turners nor Hogue were prosecuted for assisting voters. The indictment charges them with picking up absentee ballots to “open and fraudulently change those ballots that had not been marked for candidates supported and endorsed” by the defendants. They were prosecuted for allegedly casting “false, fictitious, spurious and fraudulently altered absentee ballots.”
Yet somehow, the Left would have us believe that this was a racist prosecution.
Donsanto is highly offended by any claims that the prosecution was racist. The federal prosecutors were 'trying to protect black voters who were having their votes stolen,' he notes.
It’s a totally fabricated claim, spun from thin air by Sen. Ted Kennedy and his allies to block the 1986 appointment of Sessions to the federal bench and now resurrected by the NAACP and Democrats.
A Dec. 28, 2016 interview with Craig Donsanto confirms the deception. Now retired, Donsanto was the long-time head of the Election Crimes Unit inside the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Donsanto, who is now retired, was well-known in the U.S. election community and was a nationally recognized expert on election crimes.
Donsanto wrote the Justice Department’s manual on “Federal Prosecution of Election Offenses,” which is distributed to the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices across the country. During his more than 40 years as a prosecutor, Donsanto was the go-to authority inside the Justice Department for all election crime prosecutions — including the Perry County case. No one could file such a case without getting his OK.
Donsanto remembers the Perry County case well. Indeed, he was in Alabama at the federal courthouse when the grand jury voted to return the indictment, thereby initiating the formal charges.
“No federal prosecutor faced with the evidence seen by the grand jury would have failed to take the case and go forward with the prosecution,” Donsanto told me. “The evidence in the case was overwhelming. I was there with the other assistant U.S. attorneys and not one dissented — everyone thought it was a solid case. I told Jeff Sessions to go forward with the case.”
Donsanto did more than that. He helped prepare the indictment.
Donsanto is highly offended by any claims that the prosecution was racist. The federal prosecutors were “trying to protect black voters who were having their votes stolen,” he notes. Moreover, the investigation was initiated only after local black voters and candidates complained to the Justice Department. When asked about the fact that a jury found the defendants not guilty, Donsanto says that as a former federal prosecutor, he respects the jury system.
But there is no question in Donsanto’s mind that, given the overwhelming evidence of wrongdoing, this was an example of “jury nullification.” The defendants, he notes, “were local civil rights activists, and the jury was not going to find them guilty no matter what they did.”
How otherwise could one account for the jury, for example, discounting the testimony of all six members of the Shelton family that Turner had changed their ballots without their permission or knowledge?
The false claim of racism to cover up wrongdoing and the power struggle between black Democrats in Perry County, as well as the methods used to steal absentee ballots, is eerily similar to another voter fraud prosecution conducted by the Justice Department in nearby Greene County, Ala., 10 years later. Craig Donsanto was also intimately involved in that prosecution.
Greene County has almost the same size population as Perry County and is 80 percent black. Just like in the Perry County case, the Justice Department received calls from black Democratic candidates who said their election was being stolen through absentee ballot fraud by other black candidates and activists.
Suitcases full of absentee ballots were brought to the county post office the day before the 1994 election. The result of the federal investigation showed that the defendants submitted hundreds of fraudulent absentee ballots created through an assembly line process that forged signatures, altered ballots, and convinced some voters to sign blank ballots.
Fortunately, jury nullification did not happen in Greene County. Eleven local officials and activists were eventually convicted. But just as in Perry County, the Greene County defendants and civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (whose treasurer was convicted in this case) falsely alleged that the prosecution was a racist conspiracy intended to suppress black voters through “Gestapo” tactics. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund even defended some of the vote stealers, and NAACP officials met with Attorney General Janet Reno to try to convince her to drop the prosecution.
John Kennard, the first black official ever elected in Greene County, was one of the candidates who first contacted the FBI. He was outraged by the accusations made against the prosecutors and by the intercession of civil rights organizations on the side of the voter fraud conspirators instead of on behalf of the black candidates whose votes had been stolen.
In an angry letter to Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP, Kennard wrote that helping the vote stealers was “tantamount to … defending the policemen that used the fire hoses and dogs, and Eugene ‘Bull’ Conner in Birmingham, in the early 1960s.” According to Kennard, the defendants “knew they had a fail-safe way out, when all else fails … cry racism, intimidation and pretend they are victims when they were the perpetrators of this crime.”
In Perry County, Jeff Sessions and the other Justice Department lawyers were trying to protect black voters from having their right to vote stolen — a precious right that those voters had fought very hard to obtain during the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s. Unfortunately, a jury let the defendants off despite the evidence in the case, including testimony from black residents of the county about how their ballots had been altered and changed without their permission. And that is the real tragedy of this case.
As Craig Donsanto says, this was a prosecution intended to preserve and protect the right to vote, something to which he dedicated his entire professional career. Anyone who claims this was a racist prosecution by Jeff Sessions is, according to Donsanto, “a liar and a political opportunist of the worst kind.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this article referred to LaVon Phillips with female pronouns. That error has been corrected.
Hans A. von Spakovsky is a Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and former Justice Department lawyer. Along with John Fund, he is the coauthor of “Who’s Counting? How Fraudsters and Bureaucrats Put Your Vote at Risk” and “Obama’s Enforcer: Eric Holder’s Justice Department.”