Commissioner Jim Surkamp indicted
CHARLES TOWN – An elected official who is alleged to have attempted to vote twice in a November referendum has been indicted by a Jefferson County grand jury.
Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Surkamp was directly indicted Tuesday on one count of illegal voting and one count of unauthorized presence in an election room, both misdemeanor charges.
The indictment’s first count claims Surkamp “knowingly and unlawfully, but not feloniously” attempted to vote in the county’s Nov. 7 zoning referendum, even though he cast a ballot Oct. 19 during early voting.
The second count alleges he entered a precinct on Nov. 7 as “an unauthorized individual” who was not there for a “lawful errand or proper purpose.”
Surkamp has provided – The Journal and other media – different reasons as to why it appears he was trying to vote twice.
Shortly after the referendum, Surkamp claimed he went to his polling place Nov. 7 to “see how the system worked.” Several weeks later, he indicated that he attempted to vote a second time because he had forgotten about casting his first ballot.
When asked in a Dec. 3 interview to clarify the statements, Surkamp said he had both forgotten his previous vote and also wanted to attempt to test the system.
“I had concerns. Both things happened,” he told The Journal at that time.
Surkamp, a Democrat who is running for re-election in the May 11 primary, claimed Tuesday’s indictment was a ploy to divert votes in what is shaping up to be a contentious race. He will square off against fellow Democrats Ruth McQuade and Paul Taylor, and early voting in for spring primary races starts today.
However, Surkamp said Tuesday that he has no intention of suspending his re-election bid, despite the indictments.
“The people of Jefferson County need an advocate of open, fair government now more than ever. Of course I’m running – and twice as hard,” stated Surkamp, who is from the Shepherdstown district.
“Time will show I have done nothing wrong,” Surkamp said.
He later asked The Journal in an e-mail, “What is the charge?”
“That this has happened three weeks before (the primary election when) a lot of people might vote for me for County Commission tells me it is political bologna,” he said.
Surkamp alleges one of the individuals involved in the investigation leading to the indictment had “specific professional and personal ties” to Walt Pellish, a Republican running against the incumbent commissioner. When asked to whom he was referring, Surkamp refrained from giving a name.
Instead, Surkamp claimed that an individual who spent three months investigating his case only recused himself or herself after being confronted about the alleged link with Pellish. By that time, the investigation had concluded and ultimately resulted in the indictments, Surkamp said.
Pellish, however, dismissed the allegations, when questioned Tuesday after news of Surkamp’s double indictment spread.
“I have no idea why he would have said something like that because, from my point of view, that’s utter nonsense,” Pellish said of Surkamp’s claims.
The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office oversees all election proceedings within the state and is charged with investigating alleged voting infractions. However, officials with the office refrained from elaborating Tuesday about the indictment or Surkamp’s claims, citing the fact that state code prohibits them from doing so.
They only issued the following written statement via e-mail.
“We have done and will continue to do our statutory duty when it comes to any election complaint, investigation or proceeding,” the office’s communications representative, Jake Glance, stated in the e-mail. “In this particular case, we cannot comment. The matter is in the hands of a special prosecutor, and the indictment will have to speak for itself.”
Daniel James, an assistant prosecutor in Morgan County, was appointed to handle the case.
Jefferson County Prosecuting Attorney Ralph Lorenzetti said that, immediately after the case was sent to him, he asked the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute for this change to be made. In addition, Lorenzetti denied that his office has any link to Pellish.
Lorenzetti said he has met Pellish previously but is not any more familiar with him than he is with the other candidates who are seeking a seat on the commission.
“I’ve met all of them,” Lorenzetti said.
Indictments are formal statements of charges handed down when there is believed to be enough probable cause for a case to go forward in circuit court. Any person named in an indictment is considered innocent unless he or she is found guilty in court.
James said Surkamp is scheduled to be arraigned May 3. A formal plea typically is entered at that time, he said. Trial dates will be set in the near future.
If Surkamp is found guilty, the first charge carries a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in a state correctional facility. The second charge carries an additional fine of $50 to $500 and up to 30 days in jail.
– Staff writer Naomi Smoot can be reached at 304-725-6581, or firstname.lastname@example.org