Following almost two weeks of pressure from free speech groups and press coverage, a Georgia district attorney moved to drop felony charges against a newspaper publisher and his attorney earlier today.
The publisher was indicted and jailed on June 24 for allegedly making a false statement in an open-records request. Mark Thomason, publisher of the community newspaper Fannin Focus, and Russell Stookey, the publication’s attorney, were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud after issuing subpoenas for financial records of a bank account controlled by the court.
Chief Judge Brenda S. Weaver, of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Courts, convinced Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee to bring the charges against Thomason and Stookey after the pair subpoenaed copies of checks written on a court-funded bank account assigned to Weaver, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The indictment alleged Weaver was never notified or ever consented to the subpoena and that the accused may have been trying to steal her banking information “with intent to unlawfully appropriate resources.”
In an attempt to find evidence of misspent court funds, Thomason also submitted an open records request to Pickens County seeking copies of checks that “appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally.” Sosebee and Weaver argued that this was a false statement, while Thomason told the Reporters Committee that “it was not a direct statement. It was just a statement of opinion.”
When asked about her actions, Weaver told the AJC she doesn’t “react well when [her] honesty is questioned.” The judge’s alleged abuse of power and criminal charges brought against the journalist outraged media groups, who called for the charges to be dropped and filed a formal complaint for Weaver to be investigated by the state's Judicial Qualifications Commission, which she chairs.
In a letter attached to the district attorney’s motion to dismiss, Weaver wrote:
“As a citizen and certainly as a Judge, I in no way want to diminish or infringe upon the First Amendment Rights we have under the Constitution of the United States or the Constitution of the State of Georgia. That certainly was never my intent in testifying as a witness before the grand jury in this matter.”
Weaver and Sosebee did not respond yesterday to phone messages left at their offices requesting comment on the story.
Thomason’s entanglement with the Georgia judge stems from the journalist’s March 2015 incident with another recently resigned judge of the same circuit. While reporting on Judge Roger Bradley’s use of a racial slur to address a defendant during a court proceeding, Thomason received tips from court witnesses that other county officials besides Bradley had also used the racial slur.
Thomason filed a suit against the contracted court reporter, Rhonda Stubblefield, to force her to release the original audio of the proceedings, alleging that the racial slur had been omitted by Stubblefield from the official court transcripts. The judge eventually closed the case two months later.
Stubblefield responded with a $1.6 million defamation counterclaim against Thomason, which she later dropped. Judge Weaver admitted to the AJC that she authorized the use of court money to cover Stubblefield’s $16,000 attorneys’ fees, saying “the only reason [Stubblefield] was sued was she was doing what the court policy was.”
In April, however, Stubblefield filed paper work against Thomason to retrieve attorneys’ fees, so she could pay the court back. To prove that the court had already paid Stubblefield’s attorneys, Thomason sent at least two public-records requests to Judge Weaver asking her for copies of the checks. Weaver replied to the requests stating that “the judicial branch is not considered a 'government agency' for the purpose of the Open Records Act.”
Thomason proceeded to send a public-records request to Pickens County, which he said partly funds the judges’ operating accounts, asking for copies of checks written to Weaver’s account. Thomason’s indictment for making a false statement on a public-records request stems from his written insinuation that the “the checks appear” to have been “cashed illegally.”
On June 1, Thomason and his attorney also served subpoenas on at least two banks requesting certain copies of checks from Weaver’s court account.
Under Georgia statute, “the agency or other party seeking the disclosure or production of the records shall provide notification to the depositor or other customer of such request.” While the indictment stated that Weaver never received a notification of the subpoena, Stookey, Fannin Focus's attorney, told the Reporters Committee he contacted Weaver’s office.
“I called the judge’s office and let them know that we were subpoenaing records,” Stookey said. “I left a message with the secretary [with] my name, the case number and my return telephone number. I never heard anything about it. The subpoena was served [June 1]. We had our hearing [June 13], so there was plenty of time, plenty of time.”
Free speech groups, including the Georgia First Amendment Foundation and Society of Professional Journalists Georgia, have also argued that Thomason and Stookey’s actions showed no “intent to fraudulently use” the identifying information, which the statute requires.
On June 13, a judge dismissed Stubblefield’s claim to recoup attorneys’ fees from Thomason. Almost a week later, Thomason and Stookey were indicted and jailed after Weaver contacted district attorney Sosebbee with her fear that the men might steal her personal bank records. They were released on $10,000 bond and, in Thomason’s case, under strict bond conditions, which included drug tests and a bar that impedes him from covering the courthouse for his newspaper.
“I adhered to and followed Georgia law during the entire process,” Thomason said. “The judge has gone on record saying that she takes this personal. It’s not personal. My attorney’s sole intention throughout this was to show that attorney fees had already been paid, which the judge admitted.”