Judge asks DA to drop criminal case against local newspaper publisher

The North Georgia judge who initiated a criminal indictment against a weekly newspaper publisher and his attorney was also behind the decision to abandon the three felony charges brought against the men in the wake of their efforts to access public records.

On Thursday — almost two weeks after Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and attorney Russell Stookey were arrested and jailed overnight — District Attorney Alison Sosebee of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit filed court documents to drop the charges. She attached to the motion a letter from Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who was listed as a victim on the indictment.

“You have many other cases with victims who have been harmed much more, and they need your full attention and time,” wrote Weaver, who presides in Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens Counties and is also chair of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

Sosebee declined to comment Thursday because her motion had not yet been signed by a judge to make it official.

“It’s a huge shift for an alleged victim to say I want something dismissed and it gets dismissed,” said defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who represented Thomason. “It’s definitely a shift in policy. (Weaver) said she has talked to her colleagues and has thought better of her complaint as a crime victim. Pressure to abandon the case) came from the press.”

On Wednesday, the Society of Professional Journalists filed a JQC complaint against Weaver. The treasurer for the Georgia SPJ chapter said the organization was going to push forward with its complaint despite Weaver’s efforts to stop the case.

Fundamental to democracy

Thomason and Stookey were indicted, arrested and jailed two weeks ago.

Thomason was charged with making a false statement in a request for copies of checks written on judges’ offices’ operating accounts that were “cashed illegally.”

Attorney General Sam Olens, whose office enforces compliance with the Open Records Act, said he was “astounded to learn that an open records dispute somehow led to the seeking of an indictment … Public access to information is fundamental to our democratic form of government. Public officials have a responsibility to respond to requests to access documents regardless of the perceived merit of a citizen’s request or their motivation in making it.”

Olens declined to say if his office would continue looking into the matter for possible charges.

Weaver said in her letter to Sosebee that she did not intend to infringe on free speech rights when she asked for the charge against Thomason.

She wrote that in speaking with others in the legal community she was reminded “that as a public official, I must expect not only false reporting in newspaper articles and television (which I have always understood) but I should ignore even blatant false allegations made in written emails to county commissioners.”

SPJ was critical of her reasoning.

“Judge Weaver, your credibility went out the window the minute you had a journalist thrown in jail for criticizing you. The media isn’t to blame for your troubles. You are. It is disturbing that you are unable to comprehend this very basic fact. If you were as honest as you claim, you would admit your fault in this matter and issue Thomason a sincere apology,” SPJ said in a statement.

Spending taxpayer dollars

Also, Thomason and Stookey were charged with identity theft and attempted identity theft because the lawyer secured a subpoena for a cancelled $16,000 check drawn on the judges’ accounts to use as evidence in a pending civil matter.

“The experts with whom I spoke certainly understood my grave concerns as to Thomason’s, and particularly his attorney’s, attempts to obtain official banking records without providing the required notice to me as a non-party in a separate civil case,” Weaver wrote Sosebee.

Weaver said after appearing before a local grand jury two weeks ago, she now has new “respect for the anxiety individuals must feel in moving through the criminal justice system.”

Stookey, however, was not satisfied.

“I want a trial. I want to get in a courtroom and make them prove this crap,” Stookey said. “They could come back in six months and do it again. … (Otherwise) I’ll be known as the lawyer who did fraud and went to jail for it. I did no fraud and I don’t deserve that moniker on my reputation.”

Thomason said he was relieved but also surprised by the decision because as recent as Wednesday Sosebee, in an interview with another local paper, defended her decision to pursue criminal charges.

“There are still open records requests to be filed” said Thomason who had to given urine samples for drugs tests three times, one as recent as Thursday, as a condition of his bond. “Throughout this we have, and I mean the public, yet to see how the (judges’) operating expenses have been spent. That was the main issue here, trying to confirm for the public whether taxpayer dollars were being spent in an appropriate way and the government officials were being good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

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