By: Michael Campbell, News Editor
WAVERLY – “I’m innocent.”
Those were the only words uttered by Waverly mayor Walter Mason following his first appearance in Sussex Circuit Court Wednesday morning after being charged with 12 counts of election fraud.
Wednesday’s court appearance presided over by Judge James Dalton saw the commonwealth’s representation, special prosecutor and Botetourt County Commonwealth’s Attorney Joel Branscom and Mason’s attorney Joe Morrissey filing a joint motion to continue the case until June 21 at 9 a.m.
During the course of the approximately five-minute hearing, Morrissey stated that he had already filed a motion for discovery in the case so he can get a sense of the allegations being levied against his client.
The judge also confirmed that Mason’s bond would continue and that the mayor would be required to appear in court on June 21 as a condition of his release.
While Wednesday’s hearing was not a time for the commonwealth or defense to present their case, Mason’s Richmond-based attorney spoke outside the courthouse to media reinforcing his client’s innocence.
“What appears now is that the criminal justice system is being used to thwart the will of the people,” Morrissey remarked as both Mason and his wife stood next to him, adding that prosecution “doesn’t even dispute” that Mason won the 2016 Waverly mayoral election “fair and square.”
According to the Virginia Department of Elections, Mason won the May 2016 mayoral race in Waverly with nearly 43 percent of the vote, defeating Susan Irving, Miriam Edwards, and Marvin Drew, II.
The indictments handed down by a Sussex grand jury in March allege Mason “unlawfully and feloniously” and “willfully” made a false statement or entry on an absentee ballot application, violating Virginia Code Section 24.2-1016 on four different occasions between February and April of 2016. Additionally, they go on to allege that the mayor “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,” pointing to regulations detailed in Chapter 7, Title 24.2 of the Code of Virgina, which lays out who is qualified to vote via an absentee ballot.
For Morrissey, he said Mason’s use of applications for absentee ballots to get people to vote in an otherwise small turnout election is something “a lot of elected politicians do.”
“What’s funny,” Morrissey said, “In Northern Virginia, they’ve got it down to a science. They send out applications for absentee ballots electronically, pre-filled out. Here, Mr. Mason deliberately went to a large group of people and encouraged them to vote absentee ballot.”
As he and his office prepares to mount a defense to the commonwealth’s charges, Morrissey said he plans to file a motion for a bill of particulars, requesting Branscom and the prosecution to lay out what his client allegedly did wrong.
“Tell us, Mr. Commonwealth,” Morrissey remarked, speaking positively of Branscom from his past interactions with the commonwealth’s attorney. “Tell us exactly what Mr. Mason is alleged to have done wrong and then we will come down here and decide and, after we have digested that, go forward.”
He added the term “voter fraud” has a stigma associated with it that doesn’t apply to the case being prosecuted against his client.
“When there is voter fraud and that name is used, it conjures up images of dead people voting, of people voting twice, or of people voting but not meaning to vote for that person,” Morrissey said. “That didn’t happen here.”
Waverly is nearly 50 miles to the south and east of Morrissey’s usual case load in the Central Virginia area, but, for the attorney, former state-level representative, and Richmond mayoral candidate, he enjoys working cases in rural Virginia and took the case with little hesitation.
“I go a long ways,” he remarked. “You see me in Central Virginia, in Henrico, Chesterfield, and Richmond, but I come down here to rural jurisdictions frequently and I love it.”
Town officials have told local media that the town council will continue to wait and see how the case plays out before taking any sort of action related to Mason serving as mayor, operating under the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
That position was echoed by Morrissey outside the courtroom when he was asked if Mason plans to stay in office as this case moves through court.
“Absolutely,” Mason’s attorney said emphatically.
“He’s the people’s choice. They elected him, winning overwhelmingly with 43 percent of the vote in a four-person race and people in Waverly love him,” he continued. “He’s done a great job and he will continue to do that great job and, at the end of the day, you will find out that [there was] absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever.”
Both sides are expected to re-appear in Sussex Circuit Court for a discovery hearing on June 21 at 9 a.m., at which time a date for trial may likely be set.