Emails reveal judge coached district attorney on prosecuting Fannin Focus publisher

August 4th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News Read Time: 5 mins.

Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason, who was arrested…

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee dropped…

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Document: Weaver emails

Emails from Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver to District Attorney Alison Sosebee.

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. — A judge coached a prosecutor to arrest a local reporter, emails show.

Communications obtained through an open records request reveal Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver gave District Attorney Alison Sosebee advice about prosecuting the publisher of the Fannin Focus newspaper, as well as his lawyer.

Weaver sent Sosebee a state code section that could be used against the publisher, Mark Thomason, and his attorney, Russell Stookey. Weaver also told Sosebee how to cross examine some potential witnesses in the case.

The advice came after Thomason tried to see the cash flow for Weaver’s publicly funded bank account. Sosebee presented a case to a grand jury, which on June 24 indicted Thomason and Stookey on charges of identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud for their efforts to access documents pretaining to Weaver’s operating account. The grand jury also indicted Thomason on a count of making false statements, in reference to a records request he filed.

The emails obtained this week provide a behind-the-scenes account of how the judge and prosecutor worked together in the case against Thomason and Stookey. They also reveal the nature of the relationship between Weaver and Sosebee, who once worked for the judge and her husband.

“For the DA to take this without much of an investigation and turn it into a criminal indictment is really disturbing,” said Bob Rubin, president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. “It certainly gives the appearance that the DA was doing the judge’s bidding.”

Thomason’s indictment in late June drew national media attention. First amendment organizations condemned the charges, saying Sosebee overstepped her authority in punishing a reporter for a records request. On July 18, at Weaver’s request, a judge granted a motion to not prosecute the case.

Since then, Thomason has filed a complaint against Weaver with the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the organization that oversees misconduct by Georgia judges. Weaver is the chairwoman of that organization. Also, multiple sources say, the FBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding Thomason’s and Stookey’s arrests.

Stookey and Thomason said they plan to file civil lawsuits against Weaver, as well as Fannin County.

“They’ve gotten away with doing this kind of crap for years there,” Stookey said. “There is nobody in that crowd that is smart. It is absolutely the dumbest crowd that I have seen. Maybe they’ll learn from this.”

Roots of the case

The cases against Stookey and Thomason began last summer, when they sued a court reporter. In April 2015, Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley used a racial slur for African Americans from the bench. Thomason wrote that others in the room that day claimed sheriff’s deputies had also used the racial slur, though that did not appear in the court reporter’s transcript.

Thomason and Stookey sued for an audio recording of the hearing. A judge ruled against them, saying that the transcript seemed consistent with an audio recording of the hearing that she heard. The court reporter, Rhonda Stubblefield, then sued Thomason’s newspaper, the Fannin Focus, for $1.6 million. She later dropped the complaint.

Then, the two sides fought about attorneys’ fees. Stookey and Thomason said Stubblefield’s lawyer admitted that Weaver paid for Stubblefield’s legal defense with taxpayer money. Stubblefield is not a county employee, making the lawsuit a private case.

On June 1, Thomason issued subpoenas for access to Weaver’s operating account, which is funded by taxpayers in Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties. On June 13, Thomason filed a records request for checks from Pickens County to Weaver’s account. He wrote in the request that he had reason to believe the checks had been cashed illegally.

That same day, emails show, Pickens County Commission Chairman Rob Jones forwarded Thomason’s request to Weaver. Weaver then forwarded it to Sosebee, as well as a district attorney’s office investigator.

On June 17, Weaver emailed Jones and carbon copied Sosebee, multiple sheriffs, a GBI agent and commission chairmen for other counties. She said she had already requested a criminal investigation against Thomason for the records request he sent.

“The allegations that I or anyone in my office have ‘illegally cashed checks’ are absolutely false,” Weaver wrote.

The next day, she sent emails to Sosebee’s personal account. Around 10 a.m., she told Sosebee that the key to the criminal case is Thomason’s statement in the records request that the checks had been cashed illegally. She also told Sosebee to question Fannin County Attorney Lynn Doss about giving copies of checks to Thomason — which Thomason then used to subpoena her operating account.

Weaver added: “Stookey needs to be questioned about how he got (a copy of) the check and his continued efforts to get more checks.”

Later that day, Weaver’s law clerk sent her an email with a state code section about the proper process for getting bank account information through a subpoena. The clerk told Weaver that the person issuing the subpoena needs to alert the owner of the bank account.

Weaver forwarded the message to Sosebee, with a note: “Stookey was required to give me notice and did not.”

Stookey denied this, telling the Times Free Press that he called Weaver’s assistant when the subpoenas had been issued. He said he left a message and didn’t hear back from Weaver.

“I find it amazing that Judge Weaver has the audacity to use her judicial authority to direct her constituents how she wants things done,” Thomason said upon learning about the emails.

Sosebee and Weaver did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story. The two have been close for years. In 2001, after she graduated from law school, Sosebee worked as Weaver’s law clerk. A year later, she began to practice law with Weaver’s husband, George Weaver. She ran for district attorney in 2012, and George Weaver donated $1,000 to her campaign.

“She’s clearly influencing the district attorney,” Stookey said of Brenda Weaver.

In one email, Brenda Weaver wrote that she had been in contact with a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent about Thomason and Stookey’s requests for bank account information. But on Wednesday, GBI Director of Public Affairs Scott Dutton said his office declined to look into the case because FBI agents are already investigating “the entire situation.”

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/local/story/2016/aug/04/emails-reveal-close-relationship-between-judg/379467/

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Amazing What You Can Dig Up On the Web. The web.archive.org website has some really cool stuff to read!

Pages tagged “georgia”

https://web.archive.org/web/20150220025509/http://www.stateintegrity.org/tags/georgia?page=2

Opinion: Ethics enforcement is not a partisan issue
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · MAY 02, 2012 10:06 AM

State integrity news for Georgia, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee will meet to consider evidence that state Sen. Don Balfour, Republican chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and one of the most powerful people in the Legislature, has also filed repeated false claims for travel reimbursements and committee-related pay.

Ethics reform and ethics enforcement is not and should not be a partisan issue. And while neither party is immune, it is the party that holds power that is more likely to be seduced and tempted, and also more likely to feel more or less immune by virtue of the authority that they wield.

Read the rest of the story at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
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Georgia Gov. Deal signs new open records law
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · APRIL 18, 2012 9:32 AM
State integrity news for Georgia, from the Athens Banner-Herald:

Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the state’s open-records rules, touting the measure as among several legislative successes from this year’s General Assembly session.

The measure, which takes effect July 1, reduces the cost of obtaining public documents and stiffens penalties for illegally withholding public information. But it narrows the period of time when the public can scrutinize university president candidates.

Read the rest of the story at the Athens-Banner Herald.
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Georgia legislators got $867,000 worth of gifts from lobbyists
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · APRIL 09, 2012 10:54 AM

State integrity news for Georgia, from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s analysis of lobbyist disclosures for the legislative session just ended finds that lobbyists spent $866,747 — the equivalent of $9,525 per day — on gifts for lawmakers from Jan. 1 through March 31.

This rain of meals, tickets, trips and golf outings fell even as a statewide coalition called the Georgia Alliance for Ethics Reform pressed lawmakers to limit lobbyists’ gifts to $100 per event.

Read the rest of the story at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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Georgia ethics bill “gutted” by legislature
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · MARCH 29, 2012 10:18 AM


State integrity news for Georgia, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

When this newspaper noted last week that a new report judged Georgia to have the weakest anti-corruption laws in the nation, state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, pushed out a photo of the front page headline via Twitter. On Tuesday, the Senate Rules Committee gutted a measure sponsored by McKoon that merely paired a few lawmakers with citizens interested in tougher ethics laws to form a study committee.

The civilians were stripped from the committee, and membership reshuffled to eliminate McKoon – a member of Common Cause at home.

Read the rest of the story at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
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Georgia Ranks Dead Last in State-by-State Ethics Study: The View from Both Sides
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · MARCH 20, 2012 3:59 PM · 1 REACTION


State Integrity news from Georgia from WABE:

On March 19th, the Center for Public Integrity released a state-by-state ranking of ethics laws and enforcement. The report was a joint project of CPI, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity. WABE’s Denis O’Hayer got in-depth reviews of the report from both sides: Jim Walls, the Atlanta-based journalist who compiled the Georgia report, and Rick Thompson, a former executive secretary of the State Ethics Commission.

Hear the discussion from WABE – Atlanta.
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Georgia ranks last in corruption prevention
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · MARCH 19, 2012 9:41 PM


State integrity news for Georgia, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

A new report measuring states on the strength of their laws on public corruption and government openness ranks Georgia last in the nation, a grade state officials dismissed as a biased hit job.

Georgia scored at or near the bottom in a number of categories in the study, including conflict-of-interest laws for civil servants, enforcement of ethics rules and government procurement laws.

Read the rest of the story at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
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Survey: Georgia last in U.S. ethics laws enforcement
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · MARCH 19, 2012 2:10 PM · 1 REACTION
State Integrity news for Georgia from WABE:

Georgia ranks dead last in a major new state-by-state survey of ethics laws and enforcement. The State Integrity Investigation is a joint project of the Center for Public Integrity, Public Radio International, and Global Integrity.

The Georgia report was compiled by Jim Walls, a former editor of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution’s investigative team, who now writes his own blog, Atlanta Unfiltered. Walls sharply criticized the enforcement of the State’s ethics laws, including the 2010 measure written by Republican House Speaker David Ralston.

Hear more from WABE – Atlanta.
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Paying for accountability: Founding and funding a new ethics commission in Georgia
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY BLOG · FEBRUARY 08, 2012 3:02 PM
In 2011, the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission assessed $7 million worth of fines for campaign finance violations. But because the commission, formerly known as the Georgia State Ethics Commission, couldn’t afford to send out notices by certified mail, fines against politicians, officials, and parties were cut to a total of around $1 million.

The inability of the commission to pay for a service essential to its duties is, to Georgia Senator Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna), indicative of a larger issue. The disgust was obvious in Stoner’s voice as he explained how the state of Georgia gave up $6 million in revenue. “The fact that the ethics commission could not send out certified mail should tell you that we have a problem,” Stoner said.

In response, Stoner is proposing an overhaul package that would mean a dramatic upgrade in how the state polices its political spending.
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Read more
Georgia bill would reward government whistleblowers
POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · FEBRUARY 01, 2012 11:22 AM
Corruption news for Georgia, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

The Most Intriguing Bill of the Day award goes to HB 822, a hand-crafted, bipartisan bill that would give informers a financial incentive to rat out government fraud, whether in the state Medicaid program or in your local city hall.

Penalties would be “a civil penalty of not less than $5,500 and not more than $11,000 for each false statement or fraudulent claim, plus three times the amount of damages which the state or local government sustains.” Plus attorney fees. A private citizen – presumably not part of the fraud — can file an action, and if successful would “receive at least 15 percent but not more than 25 percent of the proceeds of the civil action or settlement of the claim.”

Read the rest of the story at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
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Georgia judge Amanda Williams resigns to avoid ethics charges

POSTED ON STATE INTEGRITY IN THE NEWS · DECEMBER 20, 2011 2:09 PM
Corruption news for Georgia, from This American Life:

Judge Amanda Williams, who was the subject of our episode “Very Tough Love” has announced that she’ll resign from the bench as of January 2nd. Because she’s stepping down, ethics charges brought against her by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission will be dropped.

Earlier this month, the Commission added two charges to the original 12 counts it filed in November. One of those counts accused Judge Williams (pictured, right) of allowing her lawyer in the case, John Ossick, to represent litigants in cases she was still presiding over from the bench. The other accused her of putting a man into drug court even though there were no drug charges against him, because he was the nephew of attorney Jim Bishop.

Read the rest of the story at This American Life.
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