Media groups want criminal charges against newspaper publisher dropped

Four organizations that represent the interests of the media on Tuesday called for the dropping of criminal charges against a Fannin County newspaper publisher, saying that it was “inappropriate to use criminal charges to try and silence a critic.”

Mark Thomason, who runs the weekly Fannin Focus with a circulation of about 5,000, was charged and jailed June 24 on three felony charges brought after he requested copies of public records.

Thomason is charged with three felonies and the newspaper’s lawyer, Russell Stookey, is charged with two.

Thomason was charged with making a false statement for the wording of a written request for records. In his request, Thomason asks for copies of canceled checks that were drawn on bank accounts for the operating expenses for the offices of two Superior Court judges — Chief Judge Brenda Weaver and now-former Judge Roger Bradley. He asked specifically for checks that were “cashed illegally.”

Thomason and Stookey were charged with identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud. Those charges are based on subpoenas they sought on two local banks for copies of checks written to cover the legal fees of court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield, who sued Thomason for defamation but later dropped the suit.

Thomason and Stookey were freed on $10,000 bond after spending a night in jail. Thomason has been required to submit to drug and alcohol test on Friday and again on Tuesday.

Weaver said she alerted the district attorney to possible criminal charges after she learned there had been a subpoena secured for the account assigned to her. Weaver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that she “doesn’t react well” when her honesty is questioned.

The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Atlanta Press Club, the Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Georgia Press Association said in a joint statement there is nothing in this matter that “raises the slightest suspicion that Thomason and his lawyer sought the bank records for fraudulent purposes. It is apparent that they were seeking the records to determine how judicial operating funds had been used.”

All three judges in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit — Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens Counties — have recused themselves from hearing Thomason’s criminal case. It will be assigned to a judge in another circuit.

The conflict with the court started when Thomason began questioning whether Stubblefield, the court reporter, had left out of the transcript racial slurs made by deputies attending a court hearing. The transcript did reflect Bradley and an assistant district attorney using a slur when referring to a defendant. Thomason had received a tip that deputies also had used the slur but that was not in the written transcript. He tried unsuccessfully to get the audio of the hearing to see if there were discrepancies. A visiting judge later determined that there were no gaps.

But after stories questioning the accuracy of the transcripts. Stubblefield brought a defamation lawsuit against Thomason. She dropped her suit last March because, according to her lawyer, it was unlikely Thomason had the money to pay an award if she won.

But five weeks after Stubblefield dropped the defamation suit, she filed court papers seeking reimbursement for her legal fees. Late last year, Weaver had approved writing a $16,000 check to Stubblefield out of Brandley’s office account to cover her legal expenses. Stubblerfield filed to recoup legal fees from Thomason and Stookey so she could return the money to the court’s bank account.

Stookey was trying to secure copies of the check paid to Stubblefield to show she had already been reimbursed.

A visiting judge dismissed Stubblefield’s claim.

Weaver said she alerted the district attorney to possible criminal charges after she learned there had been a subpoena secured for the account assigned to her. Weaver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that she “doesn’t react well” when her honesty is questioned.

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