The absence of a key witness in a preliminary hearing Thursday afternoon, Sept. 7 in Jackson County Municipal Court resulted in the Election Falsification case against two prominent Jackson residents being continued.
Thomas I. Jones of 103 Morton St., Jackson, is charged with 5th-degree felony charges of Making A False Certification Or Statement Concerning The Petition Or Declaration and Election Falsification, and also a 1st-degree misdemeanor charge of Making A False Affidavit Or Statement Concerning The Signatures On A Petition.
His wife, Jackson City Councilwoman Loretta Jones of the same address, is charged with Complicity to each of the same charges filed against her husband with the charges also being the same level of alleged crimes -- two 5th-degree felonies and one 1st-degree misdemeanor.
The court complaint, filed by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office on July 5, alleges Mr. Jones signed a "petition for candidacy" as the petition circulator for Mrs. Jones' planned candidacy in the 2017 primary election even though Mrs. Jones herself circulated and collected 11 of the 21 signatures on one of the sheets of the petition on Jan. 23. Mrs. Jones' petition was presented to the Jackson County Board of Elections "on or about February 1," with Mr. Jones' signature included as the sole circulator.
Thursday's preliminary hearing before appointed judge Steven Williams of Fairfield County was to determine whether there was "probable cause" to transfer the criminal case over to the Jackson County Common Pleas Court, which adjudicates felony cases. Jackson County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Jill Shriver called three witnesses in an effort to present enough evidence to convince the court that the alleged crimes had likely occurred and the defendants had likely committed them.
However, the major stumbling block came when Shriver called Major Rob Chalfant of the Jackson County Sheriff's Office as a witness regarding a videotaped interview of Mr. Jones, which was conducted by Deputy Urias (Buster) Hall, who investigated the case. Chalfant was basically pinch-hitting for Hall, who was not able to attend and participate in the hearing due to a family-related matter.
Shriver argued that Chalfant is Hall's supervisor, that he set up the video-recording system, is knowledgeable about the process used to record interviews and to store and secure the recordings. Defense attorneys James Wallace of Athens (he represents Mr. Jones) and Claire (Buzz) Ball of Athens (he represents Mrs. Jones) countered that only Hall should be able to provide testimony on the recording of Mr. Jones' interview.
Following a recess and an extended period of discussion and contemplation among the judge and attorneys, Judge Williams reluctantly concluded the case could not go forward without Hall serving as a witness.
"I do not want to cheat the state or these defendants," Judge Williams stated. "I don't see the court allowing him [Chalfant] to introduce this CD or video. I'm continuing this matter. I cannot permit this testimony [today], but I'm not throwing it out."
No date for the resumption of the preliminary hearing was determined, but the court clerks are to coordinate with the parties to schedule it.
Other witnesses called by Shriver previous to Chalfant were Jackson resident Marvin (Pete) Wilson and Jackson County Elections Board member Justin Skaggs.
Wilson testified that he signed Mrs. Jones' candidacy petition and that Mrs. Jones had sought his signature at a Jackson City Council meeting on Jan. 23.
Skaggs, who conducted the administrative hearing regarding the protest against Mrs. Jones' candidacy, testified that the elections board wound up rejecting her candidacy for the primary election based on the evidence and testimony presented in that hearing. He recounted that Mr. Jones testified that he had circulated his wife's petition because she was "very ill" at the time, having suffered a stroke, and that he was "regretful" about doing "anything afoul of the law."
While Mrs. Jones was not able to run in the primary election, she subsequently filed as an independent candidate and is one of six candidates for at-large council on November's general-election ballot.
While the Elections Board did not seek a criminal investigation as a result of the issue with the petitions, the sheriff's office initiated an investigation due to a complaint brought to its attention by Jackson resident John Peters, a Republican candidate for at-large council. It was Peters who also filed the official protest with the Elections Board early in the year which resulted in the administrative hearing concerning Mrs. Jones' candidacy petition.