Media group files complaint against North Georgia judge

A media organization filed a formal complaint against a North Georgia judge on Wednesday, demanding a Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation into her role in a local prosecutor charging the publisher of the local weekly newspaper and his attorney with felonies after they sought public records.

At the same time, the Society of Professional Journalists also called on Attorney General Sam Olens to look at the circumstances that led to the felony charges and jailing of Mark Thomason, the editor of the 5,000-circulation Fannin Focus, after he sought public documents under the Georgia Open Records Act. Attorney General Sam Olens said the office is reviewing information provided to the state’s lawyers.

Judge Brenda Weaver, who presides in Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens Counties, and the circuit’s district attorney, Alison Sosebee, have been the subject of criticism, especially from media organizations and the legal community, since a grand jury indicted Thomason and the newspaper’s attorney, Russell Stookey, on June 24. All three charges concerned records they were seeking about spending from bank accounts maintained for office expenses of Superior Court judges in the three-county Appalachian Judicial Circuit.

“We feel there have been several potential violations of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct,” SPJ said in a statement. JQC rules prohibit releasing the details of a complaint, SPJ said.

Weaver did not respond to email or voice mail messages seeking comment for this story. But previously, the judge and Sosebee both said the three felony charges against Thomason and Stookey were justified. Thomason is charged with making a false statement in an records request. Thomason and Stookey are also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud based on subpoenas they secured for bank records on a account with tax dollars to pay for the judges’ office’s operating expenses. They said they needed copies of cancelled checks so they could respond to a matter in court pending against Thomason and Stookey.

While the media organization pushed for investigations on Wednesday, Thomason’s lawyer filed a court document asking that he be freed of some of conditions of his release on $10,000 bond.

Thomason must submit to regular drug and alcohol tests; he has already taken two. He also must allow law enforcement to search his house at any time.

Thomason also must stay away from witnesses who testified before the grand jury, which includes Weaver, and that could keep him from coming to court for hearings on his case, said defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant.

She said those conditions were “arbitrary, unnecessary, and meant for no other purpose than to harass.”

Thomason and Stookey were both charged and jailed June 24 within hours of a grand jury indicting them on three felony charges.

According to the indictment, Thomason made a false statement when he asked for copies of checks drawn on the office accounts of Weaver and now-former Judge Roger Bradley that were “cashed illegally.”

Weaver said previously Thomason had besmirched her integrity in the written request for documents and, “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.”

The identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud charges concerned subpoenas Thomason and his lawyer secured for copies of checks drawn on Bradley’s office account. They wanted the copies for another court matter.

Weaver said previously that Thomason and Stookey could have used the banking information to access funds.

Weaver has also been under pressure to resign as chair of the JQC since a complaint has been filed against her with the body that oversees judicial conduct.

“I think she will,” said Merchant, the defense attorney.

It’s likely all the other members of the commission will also have to recuse themselves because of their working relationship with Weaver, said Cartersville attorney Lester Tate, former chair of the JQC.

Former member will be called back.

“You would have a whole new commission because everyone there (now) has served with her,” Tate said.

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