HAZARD – Nearly three years after being sentenced to serve time in a federal work camp, a former Perry County official is speaking out about why he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a case that stemmed from alleged vote buying.
Chester Jones served multiple terms as circuit clerk in Perry County and later won a term as a member of the county school board. He also served for a time as the county’s Democratic chairman. It was after his final election in 2008, however, that a federal grand jury charged Jones with vote buying, conspiracy, and mail fraud. He, along with Sherman Neace, who was running for magistrate in the same election, was alleged to have dispersed funds from the Kentucky Democratic Party to illegally influence the election.
Jones pleaded guilty to the latter charge of mail fraud and was sentenced in 2010 to serve 12 months followed by two years of probation. The other two charges were dismissed.
Since his release in 2011 after serving nine months, Jones restarted his restaurant and for the past two years served the remainder of his sentence. His probation recently ended, and earlier this year Gov. Steve Beshear restored his civil rights, meaning Jones can now vote and also hold public office.
He recently contacted the Herald and said now that his sentence has been served and his case resolved, he can relate what he called “the rest of the story” about why he pleaded guilty and how the government was able to return an indictment if, as he claims, he was not guilty of the allegations.
Jones continues to maintain his innocence, claiming the money received from the KDP, which was meant for a get-out-the-vote effort and was also given to other counties, was not used to buy votes, but rather to pay workers to put up campaign signs, call voters, and haul voters to the polls.
“No money in Perry County was spent on vote buying, conspiracy, or mail fraud,” Jones said, adding that investigators interviewed local residents who received funds to work during the election. He said most of the people hired actually did the work they were paid for, while about one-third of those did nothing for the money. The latter group, he claims, were the only ones subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.
“The federal prosecutor told the grand jury since they did almost no work they sold their vote and the grand jury heard only one side of the story,” he said.
Despite the charges and evidence against him, Jones said he “had every intention” of going to trial in 2010, but on the advice of his attorney opted against it two days before the trial was set begin.
“My attorney stated if I pleaded guilty to something I didn’t do, I would get one year in jail time and two years probation, but if I was found guilty at my trial I was looking at five and a half years and up,” he said.
Neace had already pleaded guilty, and Jones noted part of that agreement, according to his attorney, meant Neace would testify on behalf of the prosecution in exchange for no jail time. He said spending a year versus the possibility of five had he been convicted at trial was a reason why he opted for the plea deal.