DA drops felony charges against publisher, attorney at judge’s request

A three-count indictment against Mark Thomason of Blue Ridge and attorney Russell Stookey of Hiawassee has been dropped at the request of Chief Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver.

Charges of identity fraud, attempt to commit identity fraud and making false statements for allegedly trying to obtain the banking records of Weaver and retired Judge Roger Bradley will not be pursued against Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus, and Stookey, who was representing him in what they called an Open Records Act request.

“The victim set forth in the indictment has made a written request that this case be dismissed,” said District Attorney B. Alison Sosebee, who identified Weaver as the victim in a phone call to Community Newspapers Inc.

The arrests of Thomason and Stookey three weeks ago released a firestorm of protest from journalism outlets. The Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists made a formal complaint to the Judicial Qualifications Commission against Weaver as several other organizations – including the Atlanta Press Club, Georgia First Amendment Foundation and Georgia Press Association – demanded the charges be dropped.

In the indictment for identity fraud, Thomason and Stookey were charged with using a subpoena from a case that contained the checking number of Weaver’s judicial account to “unlawfully appropriate resources of said victim” without the judges’ knowledge. The two were charged with attempted identity fraud for the same thing.

In the final count, Thomason was accused of making a false statement because he said “some of these checks appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally” in an open records request to the Pickens County Board of Commissioners, which he did not pursue beyond his original request.

 

‘Pure opinion’

David Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, emailed a point-by-point summation of the issues in the case to Community Newspapers.

“The indictment on this basis appeared to be a trumped-up charge because the judge was irritated at the journalist,” Hudson concluded. He did not believe there was proof the two men were planning to use the information to commit identity fraud or remove money from the account.

On the charge of making false statements, Hudson said Thomason was stating “pure opinion protected by the First Amendment” when he asserted some of the checks from the judge’s account had been cashed illegally.

While court officers at first said they did the right thing, Weaver wrote in a July 6 letter to Sosebee that she “conferred about this matter with individuals for whom I have great respect and admiration” and had been advised that she should expect “false reporting” from media outlets.

“I should ignore even blatant false allegations made in written emails to county commissioners because to protect the integrity of our system of government, our citizens should never be discouraged in any way from reporting perceived wrongs committed by public officials to other branches of government,” Weaver said she was advised.

Thomason and Stookey are alleged to have used a checking account number identifying Weaver’s judicial operating account to produce a “subpoena for the production of evidence” with “intent to unlawfully appropriate resources,” according to the indictment. Thomason alleged in an email to Pickens County Commission Chairman Rob Jones that Weaver, senior judge in the circuit, illegally wrote checks to cover the legal expenses of a Fannin County court reporter who sued Thomason.

In that incident, Thomason sued to get the recordings of a court session, alleging that court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield manipulated a transcript in which Bradley allegedly used a racial slur in an unrelated case. In response to the lawsuit and articles in the Focus, Stubblefield filed a $1.2 million libel suit against Thomason.

After Thomason’s complaint was dismissed, Stubblefield requested that, as her employer, the judicial circuit cover the legal expenses she incurred. Stubblefield eventually dropped her libel suit against Thomason.

 

A discretionary fund

Stubblefield was reimbursed out of a discretionary fund judges can use, according to a letter Weaver sent to the commission chairmen of all three counties in the judicial circuit. Thomason sought the bank records of Weaver and Bradley to show what he called “illegal” payments had been made to Stubblefield.

“As a citizen and certainly as a judge, I in no way want to diminish or infringe upon the First Amendment rights (guaranteed by the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions) ... that certainly was never my intent in testifying as a witness before the grand jury in this matter,” Weaver said.

Weaver wrote that although she had appeared before grand juries many times to discuss court programs and give updates on the circuit’s accountability courts she directs, she “never had the experience of appearing as a witness before a grand jury.”

“I have new respect for the anxiety individuals must feel in moving through the criminal justice system,” she said.

For his part, Stookey said he wants a trial.

“Actually, they have been nol prossed (short for nolle prosequi, the end of a criminal case because the prosecutor decides or agrees to stop prosecuting) ... that means they have chosen – at their whim now – not to prosecute us, which leaves the taint of doubt of some guilt on our part,” he said. “I’m not going to stand for that.”

Stookey said he didn’t want to be known as “the lawyer who went to jail for fraud.”

“I don’t think I deserve that, and I want a trial,” he said. “That’ll be on my record from now on ... I’ve been a lawyer for 31 years, handled millions and millions of dollars, handled life-and-death cases, never screwed up, I have an unblemished record, and I have to live with this.”

Stookey said the proper redress for a subpoena duces tecum (subpoena for the production of evidence) would have been a motion to quash – not charging he and Thomason with crimes.

Thomason said he was “still a little confused” when he spoke with Community Newspapers on July 7.

As recently as July 6, Sosebee gave an interview to Community Newspapers “where she said (all the counts in the indictment) were justified and implied that they would be moving forward on their end,” he said. “And eight hours later, to have that same person sign a dismissal motion is a little confusing.”

 

Pressure from media?

What does Thomason think happened?

“I don’t know,” he said. “If (Alison Sosebee) or Judge Weaver have gotten a quarter of the amount of calls that we have received, I know definitely they’re feeling some pressure from the national media.”

Sosebee said she would not provide additional comment under advisement from the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

Thomason also was asked about his next step. “(Stookey) has his attorneys, I have my attorney,” he said.

“On my end, the whole core of this originated from trying to use the legal process to find out where taxpayer money had been utilized. That question has still not exactly been answered. Judge Weaver is releasing statements from county workers that say it appears none of her checks have been cashed, or they’ve all been deposited.”

Weaver said Thomason could have gotten the records that are open to the public from clerks in Fannin and Pickens counties. However, after they told him there would be a charge to reproduce the documents, Thomason never showed up to retrieve them.

Thomason submitted a request to Pickens County for the judge’s operating account, written to either Weaver or Bradley by Pickens County, from 2013-15. An email from Faye Harvey, chief financial officer for Pickens County, offered to gather the information and prepare it for him for $60.90 – $58.50 for labor, $2.40 for copies. Harvey said she asked Thomason to submit his request on a county form and sign it, saying he would pay the cost, but she never heard back from him.

In a June 30 letter to Weaver, Sandi Holden, finance officer for Gilmer County, said she performed a review of checks from the county to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit from 2013-15.

“Front and back copies of the canceled checks were obtained from the bank, and all of the checks appear to have been properly endorsed and deposited to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit account,” she wrote.

June 29 letters from Harvey and Rita Davis-Kirby, finance director for Fannin County, also say every check was either stamped or handwritten “for deposit only,” not cashed, and all appear to be properly run through the bank.

In addition, Gilmer Commission Chairman Charlie Paris provided the Times-Courier with a letter dated Nov. 24, 2015, from Weaver informing him she intended to reimburse Stubblefield for her legal fees. The letter also was addressed to Jones and Chairman William Simonds of the Fannin County Commission.

“Because Ms. Stubblefield’s actions leading up to the lawsuit were consistent with standing orders of this court and Georgia law as to access to transcripts, she should not be personally responsible for the legal fees and expenses accrued in the defense of her case,” Weaver wrote in the letter. “Judge Bradley has agreed for his office account to be responsible for her legal expenses.”

The letter adds that any legal fees Stubblefield incurred as part of her libel suit counterclaim would not be paid by the judicial circuit. The News Observer of Blue Ridge reported on Weaver sending the Nov. 24 letter to the three commissioners in its Dec. 16, 2015, edition.

As of press time, a judge had not yet granted the district attorney’s motion to dismiss the charges.

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