The reaction was swift and loud to a report of a North Georgia newspaper publisher who was indicted and jailed because he asked for public records.
“We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question,” the Society of Professional Journalists said in a statement.
The society called for the state Attorney General’s Office to look into why a Superior Court judge in North Georgia sought charges against Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus, and his newspaper’s attorney, Russell Stookey, after they tried to obtain records regarding the court.
Thomason and Stookey were arrested on felony charges and held in jail overnight on June 24. Both were charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they sought copies of checks written on court-funded bank accounts for two judges in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit. Thomason was also charged with making a false statement in an Open Records Act request.
Both are free on $10,000 bond. Thomason said he had to submit to a random drug test Friday morning, a condition of his bond.
Neither District Attorney Alison Sosebee nor Brenda Weaver, the circuit’s chief judge, responded to emailed requests for comment Friday afternoon. Earlier, both had said the decision to indict was legally sound.
Thomason was trying to find records that might support rumors that some court funds were misspent. His open records request sought copies of checks that “have not been deposited but cashed illegally.”
The legal saga is rooted in a fight Thomason was having with a local court reporter. He had filed suit to obtain audio tapes of a court proceeding — tapes he thought would reveal information that was not in the court reporter’s transcript. The stenographer filed a counterclaim, saying Thomason had defamed her by questioning the accuracy of a court transcript.
Thomason’s suit was dimissed, and the court reporter then withdrew her action. But she persuaded Judge Weaver use a court account, funded by taxpayers, to cover her attorney fees, which came to about $16,000. Thomason and Stookey then obtained subpoenas for copies of those checks.
Weaver said in an email to the AJC there was “an improper use of a subpoena to obtain a third party’s banking records without proper notice. I do not believe you or anyone else would believe that this is allowable under the First Amendment. If true, that means I could file a bogus lawsuit against anyone and then use the lawsuit as a mechanism to … obtain their bank records, both business and personal. How dangerous would that be in this age of internet and identity fraud?”
Weaver said Thomason might use that information to gain access to the account.
Such identifying information can be redacted before it’s released, according to legal experts and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“Where on earth is the DA coming up with a felony?” said J. Tom Morgan, the district attorney in DeKalb County for 12 years. “Sounds like a (dispute) between a judge and a public gadfly.”
As in most small communities, many in Fannin County are related by blood, friendship or business. In this instance, the district attorney who obtained the indictments of Thomason and Stookey had once clerked for Weaver and also practiced law with Weaver’s husband. Judge Mary Beth Priest, appointed to Appalachian Judicial Circuit last spring, was the attorney for the court reporter who sued Thomason.
Weaver is a past president of the Council of Superior Court Judges and currently chairs the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.
The Society for Professional Journalists said the JQC and the attorney general should investigate. But a spokesman for Attorney General Sam Olens said there was “no official investigation.” The JQC could not be reached Friday afternoon.
Several lawyers said Weaver should resign from the JQC.
Otherwise, said attorney Phillip Holloway, “she will be investigating herself. The fox is literally inside the hen house,” he said.