For as much legislation passed that demands identification to vote, voter fraud is still a pretty rare crime. That’s why it was eyebrow-raising last month that not one, but two people were arrested in Albemarle County for election fraud for allegedly making false statements, and one of them is a former minister who made news nine years ago when he was charged with filming female parishioners undressing at his house.
Former Peace Lutheran pastor and counselor Gregory John Briehl, 61, was sentenced to 60 days in jail in 2006 for the surreptitious filming of women changing clothes to go swimming, according to court records and testimony at the time. He also was charged with 20 counts of child porn possession, a case that dragged on for three years because the prosecution couldn’t really establish that the young women in his files actually were under 18 years old. None of them were depicted performing sexual acts, the prosecution said.
In 2009, Briehl entered an Alford plea for one count, and received a suspended five-year sentence. And as a result of this case, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Jon Zug said the office would no longer prosecute child porn cases unless those pictured were clearly prepubescent, newly pubescent or matched images in the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children database.
Following his unlawful filming conviction, Briehl and his wife divorced, but things seemed to be looking up when he married Ruth Graham, daughter of evangelist Billy. The good times didn’t last. He had a horrific, life-threatening wreck outside of Richmond in 2010 that resulted in the amputation of his left arm above the elbow. He and Graham divorced in 2012, according to Albemarle Circuit Court records.
This latest arrest took place June 24 at his Earlysville home, according to police records, and Briehl was charged with a Class 5 felony. Briehl did not respond to multiple requests for comment through his attorney, Rhonda Quagliana, but his friend, photographer Robert Llewellyn, says Briehl doesn’t really know the reason for his arrest. “I think it’s a mistake,” says Llewellyn, who put up a 1999 Jeep Cherokee as surety for Briehl’s $2,500 bond.
Llewellyn says Briehl had applied for restoration of his voting rights. Governor Terry McAuliffe recently announced he’d restored voting rights to more than 8,250 felons.
Stephen Hales, 60, who says he’s a truck driver, was arrested June 27 for the same charge of making a false statement and released on a $1,000 bond. In a brief conversation with C-VILLE, he, too, seemed perplexed about the reason for his arrest, and said it was “something stupid,” but did not call back to provide more information.
Albemarle police spokesperson Carter Johnson says in an e-mail, “Both men provided false information on their voter registration applications and were arrested and charged as a result.” She declined to say what alleged false information was provided.
Clara Belle Wheeler, who sat on the Albemarle Electoral Board and is now vice chair of the state Board of Elections, attests to the rarity of the charge. “I don’t remember anyone being arrested in Albemarle,” she says.
Nor does county registrar Jake Washburne. “I am not aware of anyone being charged with election fraud since I’ve been here since 2006,” he says. In fact, he was unaware of the two arrests and that he’d been subpoenaed as a witness, according to court documents, until a reporter told him. “Are you kidding?” he asked.
While the registrar was out of the loop on the arrests, Washburne does have a theory about what might have happened. The voter registration form asks about felony convictions and whether rights have been restored.
Virginia State Police share information about felony convictions with the Department of Elections, and if there has been a conviction, says Washburne, “We get a little red flag. In the past, we sent a letter saying sorry, we must deny your voter registration.”
A few years ago, the General Assembly modified election code and now when denying registration, registrars must notify the local prosecutor, says Washburne. “The code doesn’t specifically require a commonwealth’s attorney to prosecute,” he says.
On March 18, he notified Albemarle Commonwealth’s Attorney Denise Lunsford of four people who showed prior felony convictions. Lunsford did not return a phone call from C-VILLE.
Recent high-profile election fraud cases here have involved people seeking office, such as City Council candidate James Halfaday, who gave a Charlottesville address while residing in Albemarle. In Fluvanna, Republican congressional candidate Feda Kidd Morton pleaded guilty to falsifying a petition in 2013.
Briehl and Hales are scheduled to appear in court August 13.