VALDOSTA -- Former City Councilman Bunnis Williams pleaded guilty on Monday to three voter fraud charges stemming from his unsuccessful re-election bid in 2001.

Southern Circuit District Attorney David Miller said Williams pleaded to three counts of a seven-count indictment, including illegal handling of an absentee ballot -- a misdemeanor -- solicitation of false statements and illegal possession of an absentee ballot -- both felonies.

Sentencing will take place March 19 in front of Superior Court Judge Harry Jay Altman. Williams could serve up to six months with a $1,000 fine for the misdemeanor and up to a combined 13 years and $110,000 in fines for the two felony counts.

Another charge of illegal ballot possession as well as first-degree forgery and two counts of offering to buy votes were dismissed as part of the plea agreement, which did not include a sentencing recommendation.

"As usual, this was a very thorough investigation on the part of the Sheriff's Office. This guilty plea was supported by both the Sheriff's Office and myself," Miller said, declining further comment until after sentencing.

Miller said evidence uncovered during the investigation showed that Williams illegally helped at least one woman fill out her absentee ballot and attempted to convince two people to lie to the Board of Elections during an investigation into Williams' actions in the November 2001 election. Williams' thumbprint was also found on two absentee ballot envelopes.

Williams' bid for a fifth term as the District 2 Council representative was unsuccessful as he lost to Willie Head.

After Head brought a challenge to the election results, the Lowndes County Board of Elections asked the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office to investigate.

District 2 historically has a high number of absentee ballots, and the 2001 election piqued officials' interest because many of the requested absentee ballots were not returned. Of the 62 absentee ballots requested in that election, all but four were cast for Williams.

This is not Williams' first tangle with the state's elections' laws, but it is the first time criminal charges were brought against him.

In 1999, Williams was fined $500 by the state Board of Elections for illegal possession of absentee ballots in a Democratic runoff election between Rep. Ron Borders and Mark Eanes for a General Assembly seat.

Williams said at the time he was unaware that possession of absentee ballots was illegal. The matter was turned over to Miller for investigation, but a Grand Jury found insufficient evidence to indict.

"I have never compromised my integrity to secure a vote for me or anyone else," Williams said at the time.

Head also leveled similar charges after his first, unsuccessful attempt to unseat Williams in 1997. No wrongdoing was found in that case, and a judge denied Head's request for a new trial.

A state investigation into that matter determined that Williams' actions were within the law. Williams maintained that he was simply helping elderly citizens exercise their right to vote.

To contact reporter Bill Roberts, please call 244-3400, ext. 245.

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