Fannin declared District 6 winner

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 2, 2009

After nearly a year in office, Pike County Commissioner Karen Berry has been ordered to vacate her seat.

Berry was declared the winner of the District 6 spot in the November 2008 election, victorious by just a six-vote margin.

But, her opponent Oren Fannin filed suit in December 2008, alleging her win came with illegal votes. After a long battle, Fannin received his desired verdict Thursday.

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“It’s good that it’s finally happened,” Fannin said. “I was to the point, I was ready for it to be finally over regardless of the decision.”

Fannin’s attorney Joel Lee Williams said he is satisfied with the verdict, as well.

“This was the only way he could rule based on law and the evidence,” Williams said.

Judge Joel Holley, who presided over the case, ruled Thursday declaring Fannin the winner of the 2008 election, ordering him to take office and Berry to vacate her seat. His ruling said 10 votes were cast illegally for Berry in the election.

All the illegal votes were in absentee ballots. The first three invalid ballots were stipulated by both parties, since Carl, Mary and Brandon Kidd cast absentee ballots for Berry but lived outside District 6.

Two others discredited belonged to Berry’s son, Brent Berry and former daughter-in-law Ashley Berry.

Ashley Berry testified in the Pike County Circuit Court trial that she did not sign an absentee ballot for her mother-in-law, though there was one cast in her name.

Based on her testimony, whom Holley said the court deems “completely credible,” backed by comparisons of her authenticated signature, Holley ruled the signature on the ballot did not belong to her.

In addition, Holley ruled the signature on Brent Berry’s ballot did not match the ones he authenticated in the courtroom or the one on his appearance bond earlier that year.

Brent Berry testified in court that those were his signatures, but Holley ruled his testimony lacked credibility.

“The court, when making its own handwriting comparison can tell the Affidavit does not bear the original signature of Brent Berry and further because Brent Berry’s testimony is not believable,” the order read.

Holley said the testimony that Brent Berry signed and had his ballot notarized on Oct. 6, 2008, at his mother’s home at 6:45 a.m. and then drove his children to school by 8 a.m. in Helena that same morning was unbelievable.

“His testimony is contradicted by Ashley Berry and by reality,” Holley wrote.

Holley said it is disturbing that Ashley Berry, who testified the handwriting on the absentee ballots looked like Karen Berry’s signatures, and further that those ballots were signed by notary Kathy Lunsford Griffin.

“Although Ms. Griffin testified that she did witness the signing of these Affidavits this court gives no weight to such testimony,” the order read.

Holley said Griffin is not a credible witness for several reasons. First, her testimony was contradicted by Ashley Berry and Rodger Blair, both deemed credible, in court.

In addition, Griffin testified in court once that she signed Brent and Ashley’s ballots between 7 and 7:30 a.m. the morning of Oct. 6, 2008. Following Brent’s testimony that he voted at 6:45 a.m., Griffin changed her testimony as well, claiming she witnessed the signatures at 6:20 a.m.

Lastly, Holley questioned in court why she would fill notary acknowledgement information out in blue ink and sign her name in black ink. Her response was she always signed in black.

“However, the next two Affidavits examined by the court…Griffin signed in blue ink,” the document reads.

Further, Holley said Ashley’s and Brent’s ballots were not counted because, based on their own testimony, they were not residents of Pike County.

Misty Shelton and Rodger Blair, both residents of the district, also were deemed to have illegal ballots.

These were ruled both because they testified their ballots were not witnessed by a notary, though they were signed by Griffin, and because neither had a valid reason for voting absentee.

Both marked they voted absentee because they had a work schedule that conflicted, and both admitted in court that wasn’t the case.

The other three votes were made just by the court’s observation that husbands and wives signatures appeared to be “virtually identical.” Those votes belonged to Scott McQuagge, Deena Stephens and Johnathan Stephens.

Those ballots were also notarized by Griffin.

While in court, Holley noted in the order that three voters Tiffany Paige Gray, Norman Lyn Gray and Nerita Hinkle all testified to voting for Fannin but lived outside the district.

While Berry’s attorney Frank Ralph said those votes should be counted invalid, Holley said law clearly states contested votes must be submitted in writing before testimony is given.

Even if those votes were counted against Fannin though, it would be a mute point.

“The above reasoning and analysis would still mathematically culminate in a one vote margin for Fannin after the ten illegal votes were subtracted from Berry’s total…” the document reads.

It is effective immediately that Berry is no the longer the District 6 commissioner, though Fannin will have to be sworn into office before he has voting power.

Fannin said he first questioned his opponent’s use of absentee ballots when he began using them in his own race.

“I started looking back historically at the records, and I noticed that the same people who had voted absentee in the primary had voted absentee in the previous elections,” Fannin said. “During the runoff is what really got me. The same people voted in the primary voted the same in the runoff.

“The first thing I looked was to see if they were elderly, and many were not elderly. So I said, why are they voting absentee?”

During the election process, Fannin said at least one resident admitted he and his family vote absentee because Berry brings ballots to their home.

“There are a number of reasons you can vote absentee, but it all boils down to — you aren’t here or you’re physically unable. If it’s not those reasons it’s a Class C felony to do that or to be asked to do that,” Fannin said.

The judge’s ruling only requires Berry to step down from office. Whether criminal charges may come will depend on the District Attorney’s or Attorney General’s offices.

“If someone files a complaint and submits evidence someone perjures themselves, that’s a Class C felony,” said Pike County District Attorney Gary McAliley.

Fannin said he’s already submitted complaints to both offices and the FBI.

Joy Patterson, spokeswoman for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, said she is not allowed to confirm or comment about if they are investigating a matter.

She said in general, these types of offenses are usually handled at the local level, but sometimes the AG’s office will take on the matter if given a complaint.

Fannin said, overall though, he hopes his actions will ensure a more honest election process in the future.

“I’m hoping it will make elections more honest,” Fannin said.

Neither Berry nor attorney Ralph returned calls for comment Thursday.