11 May 2006

A Few Words About Chad Dotson

Libertas, has been speaking quite a bit about prosecutor Chad Dotson (also see Comonwealth Conservative) lately; he's even been spreading his comments to other blogs. Libertas makes this request:

Chad should explain his role in the town of Appalachia and his relationship with those now implicated in this growing scandal.

Why wasn't it busted up before the election charges even came to light?

Why did it take a special prosecutor to do what the local Commonwealth's Attorney wouldn't?

If he can't find a way to prosecute anyone in Wise County, how can he preside over their trials?

The problem is, I don't think Dotson can answer these questions. As I read the ethics rules, Dotson is forbidden to discuss the case under Rule 3.6: "A lawyer . . . associated with the investigation or the prosecution . . . of a criminal matter that may be tried by a jury shall not make or participate in making an extrajudicial statement that a reasonable person would expect to be disseminated by means of public communication that the lawyer knows, or should know, will have a substantial likelihood of interfering with the fairness of the trial by a jury." Most everyone I know gives that a fairly broad interpretation so that they remain silent if (1) an indictment has been served and (2) they have had something to do with the case. Furthermore, it is just bad form to comment on a case when another attorney has stepped in to replace you. So, I will do my best - with admittedly limited knowledge of Wise - to answer the questions posed.

This is Wise County. One city, six towns, and rural areas. This means various police departments and the sheriff's department to deal with. There's one Commonwealth Attorney's office for all of that based in the Town of Wise. As best I can tell that's also where the only courthouse is located.

The local paper (Coalfield.com) has published a series of articles which describe what has happened in this investigation.

28 July 2005 - Wise County Commonwealth Attorney Chad Dotson on Wednesday requested that a special grand jury be impaneled by Circuit Court Judge Tammy McElyea to investigate irregularities surrounding last year's town council elections in Appalachia.
. . .
"The initial focus of the special grand jury will be the election, but the investigation will be open-ended. Wherever the election takes us, we will follow. There are no statutes of limitations on any felonies, and most of these allegations would result in felony charges."
. . .
"At the end of the process, the special grand jury will report back to me on whether they determined there is sufficient probable cause to prosecute in any number of areas," he said.

I'm not sure how the rest of ya'll read that. My suspicious, defense attorney mind reads that as saying: "We've got a hook to start fishing with. We know there's more to this and we're going to use it to pry the other stuff out into the open which we'd never be able to do though a normal investigation."

Dotson got the grand jury set up for the 3d and 4th of October. Then Dotson inquired of the State Bar whether he had a conflict of interest because the Town of Appalachia pays him to prosecute misdemeanor cases charged under the town's ordinances. On 09 September 2005 the Bar ruled that he could not prosecute; it also forbade other members of his office from taking up the case.

"I'm extremely disappointed I won't be able to continue doing this, because I've put a lot of work into it," Dotson said. "But I want to make sure this is done 100 percent above board, because the people in Appalachia deserve some answers."

The news article hints that something might have been going on behind the scenes and I'd suspect something myself - if for no other reason than it's hard to separate a prosecutor from a case he's put this much work into and there's clearly already a lot of chum in the water here. Maybe someone thought that they could pressure him into dropping the charges if he was conflicted out and wouldn't get the political benefit of the convictions. Maybe it was just that someone (the judge or one of his associate prosecutors) realized that the people being investigated paid part of the Commonwealth Attorney's salary, no matter how small. In any event, Dotson didn't just step down; he asked the judge to find someone without a conflict to continue the investigation.

The court appointed the man who was the Commonwealth Attorney before Dotson to continue the investigation. In my experience, the way this usually works is that the prosecutor who is conflicted out usually asks a particular person to replace him. However, the judge could have made the choice entirely on his own. The news articles never specify exactly how the switch-over took place.

On 30 January 2006 State Troopers raided the houses and government offices of various Appalachian officials and found evidence of other inappropriate and illegal activities. Thereafter, the judge signed an order allowing the special prosecutors to expand the scope of their investigation. And, let's be honest, this was most likely the goal from the beginning. Remember, the State Troopers had already been investigating the election fraud and, in the early stages of all this Dotson wanted to have a special grand jury for an "open-ended" investigation.

In March 2006 a 300 count, 269 page indictment of 14 people issued for election fraud and police corruption. The 14 defendants pled not guilty - 3 to over 100 charges apiece - and the trial is scheduled for 03 October 2006.

And now comes the matter which raises Libertas' interest: as part of the election fraud investigation the special grand jury has exposed a gambling ring in Appalachia which was apparently very successful.

After a series of raids Saturday morning revealed evidence of widespread wagering in establishments run out of vacant Main Street storefronts, authorities spent Sunday preparing forfeiture papers intended to capture the enterprises' suspected illegal assets.
. . .
"If somebody said we were going to seize half a million dollars, I would not have thought that," McAfee said.
. . .

"Everybody knows that gambling has gone on in Appalachia for a long time," said Rick Bowman, a former member of town council. "It's become a way of life, just like political corruption has been."

Actually, it looks like the two were pretty much intertwined.

So what are the answers to Libertas' questions?

What is Chad's relationship with those implicated?

There are two ties. First, his office receives funds allocated from the town they ran in exchange for the prosecution of violations of the town's ordinances (not terribly unusual). Second, he took part in the investigation which is bringing them down.

Why wasn't it busted up before the election charges even came to light?

Well, probably because of the lack of evidence. The special prosecutor, who was the person in Dotson's office before Dotson, seems shocked at the scope of this gambling ring. Why should Dotson have known any different?

This doesn't necessarily means Dotson had no suspicions. Find a prosecuting attorney in a candid moment and ask him if he doesn't suspect some of the power players in his county are up to some shady stuff. I guarantee none of them would admit it here, but they all do. Then ask him if his chances of finding the truth would be improved if the local police force was corrupt. Remember, this is all an outgrowth of a State police investigation.

Why did it take a special prosecutor to do what the local Commonwealth's Attorney wouldn't?

It didn't. The investigation would have gotten there anyway. Let's be crass for a moment and assume Dotson wouldn't pursue this for the right reasons - that he'd only act to further his self interest. Wouldn't this prosecution be a jewel in Dotson's crown? He's making local news for cracking down on local drug rings, but the story out of Wise which is making it into the Roanoke and Richmond papers is the corruption scandal which has produced these gambling seizures. Assuming that Dotson is a fairly typical commonwealth attorney and has dreams of being attorney general some day, does anyone truly think the fact that the town paid him to prosecute ordinance violations would have stopped him from pushing this investigation?

If he can't find a way to prosecute anyone in Wise County, how can he preside over their trials?

He can prosecute people in Wise County. Personally, I think the Bar was a little too cautious here when it told him he couldn't go forward with this case. Still, I guess it does avoid the appearance of impropriety. If Dotson had been allowed to stay on this case and decided only to press forward with 250 charges instead of the 300 the special prosecutor went forward on would we be discussing today whether Dotson had failed in his duty because of his conflicting loyalties? Possibly.

---------- ---------- ----------

All-in-all, the fact that Dotson's office received funds to prosecute ordinance violations for Appalachia isn't exactly the most damning thing I've ever heard. Commonwealth attorney offices often have their budgets augmented by the localities and I suspect this was probably in place before Dotson took office. Dotson's connection with the officials of Appalachia appears tenuous at best and if anybody thought they were buying protection by paying Dotson to prosecute ordinance violations they were obviously sorely mistaken.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One clarification. McAfee WAS NOT Commonwealth Attorney before Chad. Judge Joe Carrico was, and Chad was an assistant in his office. There was another CA before that, and McAfee was CA before that.