A former eastern Kentucky school superintendent was sentenced Tuesday to two years in federal prison for leading a vote-buying conspiracy during the 2010 primary elections. U.S. District Judge Karen Caldwell also levied a $250,000 fine on 66-year-old Arch Turner during his sentencing in federal court in Lexington.
Turner was Breathitt County school superintendent from 2005 until his retirement this year after he was charged. The fine is more than six times the maximum recommended under the federal sentencing guidelines, which called for a fine between $4,000 and $40,000.
Caldwell ordered the money paid immediately, noting that Turner made $150,000 a year as school superintendent and $75,000 annually for years before being elected as an administrator in the school system. Caldwell also called Turner's crimes "heinous and cynical" because they struck at the center of the democratic process. In this case, Caldwell noted, Turner paid voters out of his own funds and coerced others to lie to a federal grand jury once a federal investigation started.
Vote-buying cases aren't uncommon in eastern Kentucky, but Caldwell noted that Turner's involvement was unusual because he wasn't on the ballot and had nothing to gain financially by his participation.
"The court thinks a punitive sentence is appropriate and necessary," Caldwell said as Turner sat with his arms folded at a table in the courtroom. "He did it just because he wanted to. He did it just because he could."
Turner pleaded guilty in July to distributing money to others to buy votes for candidates he supported in local races. His plea agreement also said he accepted money from another person to be used to purchase votes.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Taylor said Turner headed one of two factions in Breathitt County that were in a struggle for local control and political patronage in the rural area on the edge of Appalachia that is home to about 13,000 people. Turner wasn't on the May 2010 ballot, but races for the Republican and Democratic nominations for U.S. Senate were up for grabs.
Eleven others, including a former sheriff, were convicted or pleaded guilty in related cases. They received sentences ranging from probation to a few months in prison.
Turner said little throughout the hearing, only responding briefly to Caldwell when asked if he had anything to say for the court to consider.
"I'm just sorry to be here," Turner said before sitting down again.
Turner's attorney, Brent Caldwell, told the judge about his client's years of work educating children and how Breathitt County schools improved under his leadership.
"He has done very good work. He stayed in Breathitt County, he believed in Breathitt County," Brent Caldwell said. "Like happens in this country, some people fall. And he fell."
Brent Caldwell said Turner is aware he shouldn't have "been playing around in that game," but recognizes that he broke the law and is willing to serve time for his offense.
Judge Caldwell ordered Turner to serve 120 hours of community service upon being released from prison. Included in that service, the judge noted, should be educating the public about the consequences of vote-buying. The judge capped the sentence at two years, although she considered extending the prison time.
"I don't think the public should be burned longer than two years with keeping up this defendant," Judge Caldwell said.
Turner was ordered immediately into federal custody. After being sentenced, Turner briefly chatted with family members in the courtroom and handed over his wallet and tie before being led away by U.S. Marshals.