Don’t say that nothing exciting ever happens outside Atlanta.
The Appalachian Judicial Circuit, which includes Fannin, Gilmer, and Pickens Counties, has been at the center of a First Amendment and public corruption controversy ever since Mark Thomason, the publisher of the Fannin Focus, and his attorney Russell Stookey were arrested and indicted on charges of fraud and making false statements related to an open-records-request they had filed. As of Monday, the charges against Thomason and Stookey have been dropped, but they are promising to keep fighting the public officials, including Judge Brenda Weaver, who caused their trouble. Oh and the FBI is involved now. The full scoop on the small town drama is below the fold.
The drama began in March 2015, when Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley (now the former Judge Bradley) used a racial slur in his courtroom. Thomason heard rumors that other officers of the court may have also used the slur, so he requested the written transcript from court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield, who informed him that only comments from the judge and the assistant district attorney were written down. She denied his request for an audio recording of the proceedings. Thomason wrote an article in the Focus suggesting the written transcript was incomplete and then sued Stubblefield for access to the audio recording. Stubblefield filed a $1.6 million counterclaim, saying that his article defamed her by implying her transcript was inaccurate.
Thomason’s request for the audio transcript was later denied and Stubblefield dropped her counterclaim. However, she did ask him to cover her attorney’s fees. Enter Judge Weaver, one of Judge Bradley’s colleagues on the Appalachian Circuit and the chairwoman of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC), which investigates ethics complaints against members of Georgia’s judiciary. Judge Weaver had already covered Stubblefield’s attorney’s fees with a $16,000 check that was paid out of a taxpayer-financed account set up to cover operating expenses for Appalachian Circuit judges. Judge Weaver thought it was fine that the court pay for Stubblefield’s expenses because, “the only reason she was sued was she was doing what the court policy was.” It should be noted that Stubblefield’s attorney was Mary Beth Priest who, as of April 2016, is serving as a judge on the Appalachian Circuit with Judge Weaver. The reader should draw their own conclusions there.
When Thomason caught wind of the $16,000 check from the Appalachian Circuit account, he had Stookey file an open-records-request. Stookey’s request asked for records of certain checks that were “cashed illegally” to prove that Stubblefield’s attorneys had already been paid. Judge Weaver went to the Appalachian Circuit’s district attorney, claiming that the open-records-request’s mention of “illegal” checks amounted to a false statement and that Thomason and Stookey were planning to commit fraud by stealing bank account information from the records. The district attorney is one Alison Sosebee, who previously served as a law clerk for Judge Weaver and was given her first job by Judge Weaver’s husband George. Thomason and Stookey were charged on June 24th.
After the indictment came down, both men were arrested. Thomason was strip-searched twice and had to stay overnight in jail where he slept on a concrete floor. Both were released on $10,000 bonds and were ordered to submit to pretrial drug testing. Neither was allowed inside the county courthouse. Thomason thought Judge Weaver’s claim that he would have used the checks to steal from the court’s operating account was ridiculous. He said that his “sole goal was to show that legal fees were paid from a publicly funded account.”
First Amendment organizations agree that entire episode stinks of abuse of power and civil liberty violations. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Georgia Society of Professional Journalists all came out against Judge Weaver for punishing a journalist for making an open-records-request. Open-records-requests are a routine part of reporting. Arresting journalists for making them could have a chilling effect on the freedom of the press. The Society of Professional Journalists was particularly incensed. It filed a complaint against Judge Weaver with the JQC citing “several potential violations of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.” The JQC has not confirmed whether or not it is investigating Judge Weaver or if her status as chairwoman is at risk.
With all of the public controversy surrounding the case, Sosebee decided to drop the charges against both men. Judge Richard Winegarden signed the official order that let them off the hook. Sosebee did not attend the hearing, but she has said that she will not reindict either man for this incident. Thomason and Stookey are not ready to be done though. Thomason announced on the Fannin Focus Facebook page that they will soon “begin the process of moving forward with our 1st Amendment Violation lawsuit.” They will reportedly target Judge Weaver, George Weaver, Sosebee, and Fannin and Pickens Counties in the suit.
In addition to the JQC complaint, Judge Weaver might have to deal with an FBI investigation into the Appalachian Circuit’s operating account and the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Thomason and Stookey. She has apparently reached out to the FBI to clear the air. She said that she turned over all checks made out by the operating account and that county finance officers have assured her that there were no improprieties with the account. Public corruption is one of the FBI’s top investigative priorities.