By Michael Campbell, News Editor
1:33 p.m. | Wednesday, June 21.
TOWN OF WAVERLY – The election fraud case involving longtime resident and current Waverly Mayor Walter Mason continues to move forward after a hearing Wednesday morning saw both sides agree to a mid-August date for a single-day trial.
During the hearing, special prosecutor and Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom and Mason’s legal representative Joe Morrissey selected Friday, August 18 as the date where both sides will present their case regarding the 12 felony counts of election fraud levied against Mason earlier this year to a Sussex jury.
According to court documents obtained by The Sussex-Surry Dispatch in March, a Sussex grand jury found cause for the Commonwealth to move forward with their case, which alleges on four different occasions between February and April of 2016, Mason “unlawfully and feloniously, willfully [made] a false statement or entry on an absentee ballot application,” a violation of Virginia Code Section 24.2-1016.
In addition, those documents further allege that Mason “unlawfully and feloniously [aided] or [abetted] or [attempted] 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 various rules and regulations related to absentee voting across nearly 20 chapters.
The allegations against Mason took center stage during the near half-hour proceedings as Circuit Court Judge James Dalton listened to Morrissey argue for, and eventually be granted, a motion for a bill of particulars so he can get a full scope of what the Commonwealth’s evidence is and what specific misconduct was allegedly conducted by his client.
During his argument, Morrissey reiterated his stance on the Commonwealth’s case from earlier this year, stating that he has “no clue” what Mason did wrong when it came to the absentee ballots cast in the Spring 2016 town elections.
Speaking to eight of the allegations levied against the mayor which state Mason “unlawfully and feloniously [aided] or [abetted] or [attempted] to aid or abet” seven different people in “a violation of absentee voting procedures,” Morrissey pointed to the Code of Virginia, remarking that his client “has to violate something” under both Chapter 7 of Virginia Code Section 24.2 and 24.2-649, which specifically lays out assistance that can be given to certain voters, including those who are over the age of 65, physically disabled, those voters who can’t read or write, or if the voter requires assistance in a language other than English, among others.
“In order to commit this crime, he has to violate something that is prescribed under Chapter 7 and 24.2-649,” Morrissey remarked. “What is it? We don’t know. [Mason] doesn’t know.”
Additionally, in regards to the four remaining felony charges, which allege the mayor “unlawfully and feloniously, willfully [made] a false statement or entry on an absentee ballot application,” Morrissey said an absentee ballot application has “10 to 12 statements on it” and that there could be “10 or 11 different possibilities.”
“Which one has he violated,” Morrissey questioned of Branscom. “It’s not fair for the Commonwealth to say ‘Here are all the statements, and, at trial, we will tell you which [Mason] made that is false.'”
Despite being reminded by Judge Dalton that Wednesday’s hearing was not a time for presenting arguments like in a trial setting, Morrissey used his time in front of the court to explain that Mason used “smart politics” as part of his bid for re-election as the town’s mayor in 2016 by getting people to vote via absentee ballots.
According to records from the Virginia Department of Elections, Mason defeated closest mayoral challenger Susan Pope Irving by 44 votes in the 2016 election. Data shows that a total of 68 absentee ballots were cast during that election, with 61 of those votes going to Mason.
In court Wednesday, Morrissey said the Commonwealth has called into question nearly 90 percent of those absentee votes due to some form of irregularity, adding that interviews conducted by Virginia State Police investigators prove the applications and ballots were completed legally, noting those absentee voters signed the application and gave it to Mason to be mailed, allowing them to receive a ballot in the mail.
“What did he do wrong?” Morrissey asked. “I don’t know. I helped write these laws and I don’t know what he did wrong. Don’t leave me to guess what 20 different sections of Chapter 7 he possibly could have done.”
According to the Commonwealth, the request from Morrissey only dealt with items related to the allegations of misinformation on absentee ballot applications by Mason and not the allegations of violating absentee voting procedures.
While responding to Mason’s defense, Branscom opened up about the specifics of the case for the first time in open court, saying of the 68 absentee votes cast in the Spring 2016 election, most “were in the same handwriting.” Once Virginia State Police was given the green light to investigate the matter by the Office of the Attorney General, interviews were conducted with all the absentee voters, with a “short summary” of what those voters said being provided to Branscom.
The special prosecutor then asked investigators to conduct follow-up interviews with those he had concerns about to get more information, with Branscom noting that Morrissey had been provided copies of both sets of interviews, along with everything the Commonwealth has in this case.
“On the applications themselves, there were portions of the applications that the voter disagreed with that were filed out by Mason and were not true, according to the voter,” Branscom revealed. “When you vote absentee, you have to have a witness in the room, you have to fill the application and the ballot out yourself, you have to seal the ballot and you have to put it in the mail yourself or take it to the registrar yourself.”
Branscom alleges Mason took unsealed ballots from the absentee voter and “[took] them home or somewhere else and [had] someone else witness it,” adding there is “at least one allegation that he voted” a ballot, a claim Morrissey didn’t understand when asked about it outside Sussex Circuit Court.
“I don’t know what he meant by that,” Morrissey remarked, with Mason adding the practice of going to homes and visiting voters is “called campaigning.”
“Every single person that I know who is running for office who is going out and getting signatures is carrying in their back pocket an application for an absentee ballot,” Morrissey continued. “Walter goes over there and helps them fill out their application, which is perfectly fine, and then they wanted to vote for Walter, and later, they get the ballot in the mail. They would then call him up, he came over, they indicated with their signature that they wanted to vote for Walter and they did.”
For the prosecution, this case is about making sure the rules of the state’s electoral processes are being followed, no matter how small the voter pool for a given race is, with Waverly seeing less than 500 ballots cast in the Spring 2016 mayoral election.
“In general terms, the procedures laid out in absentee voting are there for a reason,” Branscom said. “There are procedures there that have to be followed in order to cast that absentee ballot.”
Mason, who says he hasn’t let the ongoing litigation distract from his duties as the town’s mayor, said he is ready for his day in court.
“I am just looking forward to the trial and getting all this behind me,” the mayor remarked with his wife at his side. “Everyone that voted for me has always been there and supportive and I look forward to moving on and doing the work of the town.”
Mason, Morrissey, Branscom will return to Sussex Circuit Court for a jury trial on Friday, August 18 beginning at 9 a.m.