By Michael Campbell, News Editor
WAVERLY – The community of Waverly continues to make sense of the news that mayor and longtime town resident Walter Mason was indicted by a Sussex County grand jury Tuesday on 12 counts of election fraud following the spring 2016 elections in the community.
According to the indictments, prosecutors allege on four different occasions between February and April of 2016, Mason “unlawfully and feloniously, willfully make a false statement or entry on an absentee ballot application,” a violation of Virginia Code Section 24.2-1016.
In addition, court documents further allege that Mason “unlawfully and feloniously aid or abet or attempt to aid or abet” a total of seven different people “in a violation of absentee voting procedures,” violating regulations in Chapter 7, Title 24.2 of the Code of Virginia, which details who is qualified to vote via an absentee ballot.
The case against Mason is being prosecuted by Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom, whose office is some distance from the heart of Sussex, where the county’s courthouse is located, with approximately 200 miles of U.S. Route 460 separating the two communities.
In an interview, Branscom explained the months-long investigation into Mason began after a complaint was filed with the Sussex County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office only three days after the May 3, 2016, election.
After the complaint came in, he said Sussex Commonwealth’s Attorney Lyndia Ramsey asked the court to appoint a special prosecutor to the case, with Judge Alan Sharrett naming Branscom to the case.
“It’s pretty much a conflict when you’re involved in local government and local government is who the complaint is against,” the special prosecutor explained. “So, on May 6, 2016, Judge Sharrett appointed me and my office to investigate the 2016 election for the town of Waverly.”
The campaign for mayor and other town offices began in early 2016 for those running for office, Mason included, who, during an interview following the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornado that struck the community, said he was out campaigning in the minutes leading up to the storm.
When last year’s election results were revealed, it was Mason who was re-elected to the position of mayor, besting closest challenger Susan Pope Irving by 44 votes. Additionally, with court documents specifically mentioning “false statement or entry on an absentee ballot” and “violating absentee voting procedures,” a significant number of absentee ballots were cast during the 2016 Waverly mayoral election.
According to Virginia Department of Elections, a total of 68 absentee ballots were cast during the election, with 61 of them voting for Mason.
Since 2002, Mason has been elected mayor three times. In 2010, he narrowly defeated James M. Urquhart by a mere three percentage points. The following election in 2012, Mason beat his sole challenger, Keith Dwight Jones, by earning 53 percent of the vote.
Mason’s re-election bid in 2014 was dashed by Barbara Gray, who defeated him in that election by earning nearly two-thirds of the vote.
Prior to 2010, Irving won the town’s mayoral elections dating back to 2002, even defeating Mason during the 2004 election, with Irving winning 64 percent of the vote during that race.
In the weeks and months following Mason’s victory in 2016, Branscom and his office were working on a case against the mayor. As part of their efforts, he explained that the Virginia State Police was brought in to lead the investigation into the case due to the matter involving an elected official.
Before that could happen, Branscom had to reach out to Mark Herring and the state Office of the Attorney General, who could give the green light to State Police to conduct that investigation into Mason. According to the prosecutor, they were approved to start their work by July 1 of 2016.
Declining to go into specifics regarding the investigation, Branscom did say they drafted an order to have election records released to State Police as part of their inquiry.
Indictments filed by the court show the involvement of Virginia State Police in the investigation, with a special agent with the department listed as a witness on the documents.
For Branscom, efforts to prepare for the Commonwealth’s first appearance in court are already underway.
“They will arraign Walter Mason on April 12,” he explained, “At which point, they will discuss attorneys, but there may be one named before then, and they will set a court date, either for motions or to try the case.”
The prosecutor continued by saying this multi-month investigation involved a lot of different pieces coming together throughout the course of 2016 leading up to the indictments.
“Some of this was hard to do from across the state while coordinating with the State Police in the Chesapeake region and getting permission from the Attorney General’s Office; it all took some time,” he said. “I also have this job here in Botetourt County that can get in the way and we worked to make sure the case would be timed to make it to the grand jury in Sussex County.”
While prosecutors continue to work on their case, Mayor Mason remains quiet on the felony charges levied against him.
In an interview Thursday, Mason declined to speak to the charges he is facing, nor would he disclose who his attorney is that will be representing him in this case.
He did say that he will be holding a press conference at a later time and that he and his attorney will work to provide details of that conference with the media and public.
As of this report, specific details of when and where that press conference will take place remain unknown.
Stay with The Sussex-Surry Dispatch for the latest information on this developing story.
Copyright 2017 by Womack Publications