DUBLIN — In 2004, just two years after a handful of Dodge County officials — including a former sheriff — were sentenced to prison in the largest voter-fraud prosecution in U.S. history, Lawton Douglas was locked in a runoff election for the Dodge sheriff’s job.
His grandfather and great-grandfather had run for sheriff and lost. By his own admission, Douglas, who had run for sheriff in 2000 and lost, was driven by his family’s failings and passion for politics. He won the runoff four years later by about 400 votes.
Tuesday, Douglas, 38, was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for conspiring to buy votes. Prosecutors alleged that Douglas gave money to his two co-defendants and others to pay people to vote for him in the 2004 election. Hundreds of votes were bought, either with cash, liquor or, in some instances, drugs.
“I apologize to the court,” Douglas told U.S. District Judge Dudley Bowen. “As you’ve said, here we are again, coming out of the same place. I also apologize to my family and the people of Dodge County for the embarrassment.”
One co-defendant, Olin Norman “Bobo” Gibson, 44, of Helena, was also sentenced Monday to four months in prison.
The case against a third person, Thedy Deneen McLeod, has been turned over to state authorities, who have said they are also probing the 2008 Dodge election, when Douglas lost a bid for re-election.
McLeod was implicated in the previous scandal, which centered on the 1996 election.
She served four weekends in jail after pleading guilty in that case to one count of conspiracy to buy votes.
The history of tainted elections in Dodge and some surrounding counties was not lost on Bowen, who has presided over the Dublin district since 1979.
“These cases are no stranger to Telfair, Wheeler and Dodge (counties). You do eventually find out what happens in Dublin, don’t you?” he asked Gibson. “I know the message does get across.”
Bowen sentenced Douglas, who is also a former County Commission chairman and Helena police chief, to the maximum term set by probation officers’ presentencing guidelines in the case, which called for 12 to 18 months in prison.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Tanner questioned the guidelines, noting that the sentence would be the same as for selling drug paraphernalia.
“You sell a marijuana bong and it’s the same as buying hundreds of votes in an election?” Tanner asked before recommending that Bowen give Douglas the maximum sentence allowed.
“I think 18 months takes into account the severity of the offense, that the election was for the office of sheriff, that hundreds of votes were bought and that Mr. Douglas did this two years after sentencing in the largest vote-buying prosecution in U.S. history.”
Douglas’ wife, Mariella, made a tearful plea for leniency, saying her husband was not the same “young and selfish man, driven by goals” as when he ran for sheriff in 2004.
“Six years later, he’s not a selfish man, he’s a selfless man,” she said. “I ask you to have mercy for me. Today, he’s not getting sentenced. We’re getting sentenced.”
Gibson’s attorney, Ashley McLaughlin, said that as a friend of Douglas’, his client was “put in a strange position.”
““His arm wasn’t twisted,” McLaughlin said. “He may have felt a sense of loyalty, but he knew what he was doing.”
Rather than downplay the seriousness of his client’s crimes, McLaughlin, a McRae lawyer, lamented the problem of voting irregularities in the area.
“To say that voter fraud is a problem in our district, in our circuit, is an understatement, from the municipal level up to some of the county offices, if not higher. ... It cheapens the process. We have a pretty hard time getting good people to run for office in our little town.”
Gibson, who began working in law enforcement in 2007, cost himself his “dream job,” McLaughlin said.
Before sentencing, Tanner, the prosecutor, noted that Gibson, unlike Douglas, started cooperating with authorities before an indictment was handed down.
His cooperation may have contributed to the lighter sentence. Sentencing guidelines had called for six to 12 months.
Bowen said he believed both men had been rehabilitated and described them as “straightforward.” After prison, both must serve three years of supervised probation.
“I’ve never been in any trouble,” Gibson said while leaving the courthouse with two of his 10 adopted children. “You learn from your mistakes.”
Asked if he was still friends with Douglas, he said, “I don’t hold a grudge. Life’s too short.”
Douglas declined to comment after the hearing. In court, he said he took “responsibility for Mr. Gibson being here today.”
“I’m who got me here,” he added.
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.