Records: How 1 Georgia judge spent her $50,000 office expense account

A North Georgia judge spent more than $12,000 in taxpayer money on restaurants and food last year, with more than a third of it for entertaining Georgia Supreme Court justices, their spouses and staff, records show.

The finding is significant not because of the sums involved, but because a Fannin County publisher and his lawyer were indicted and jailed in June after they tried to gain access to those same records. The indictment was dropped after a public outcry, but the case has had the effect of calling attention to the spending of Chief Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit.

Until Friday, Weaver also was the chair of the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which monitors judges’ conduct. But Weaver is now under investigation by the commission, and she resigned from that post on Friday.

Records of Weaver’s spending do not suggest any impropriety. As chief judge Weaver controls an office account of nearly $50,000 a year, contributed by taxpayers in the three counties in the circuit — Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens. Last year she accounted for office expenses, including copying, phone service, printing, paper and pens, of $23,000.

But Weaver also charged taxpayers $3,540 for training and her memberships in local, state and national organizations like the State Bar of Georgia, the National Association of Women Judges and the Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. And she spent about a quarter of her office account on restaurants and food.

‘I can’t understand what’s the big deal?’

A large chunk of Weaver’s food expenses — $4,725 — went for feeding the Georgia Supreme Court, the justices’ spouses and the court’s staff when the court visited the circuit to hold special session for oral argument last October. Local taxpayers also paid $3,063 to lodge the visitors. Total taxpayer tab for the visit: $7,788.

“We were very honored to have the Supreme Court in our circuit and it was a wonderful learning experience for our high school students as well as others who attended,” Weaver told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The judge also spent more than $7,000 on other food expenses, including $1,458 at Deb’s Bakery, $1,404 at Honey Baked Hams and $766 at Bojangles. Weaver said she provides lunch at regular planning meetings and at meetings with outside agencies and advocates who work with the accountability courts.

The spending records — included in hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the AJC — are key in a long-running controversy in the circuit in which the publisher of a local newspaper and his attorney were indicted and jailed because of their attempts to get copies of checks drawn on the judge’s office account.

While the two men spent a night in jail and were under felony indictment for more than three weeks, the issue over the checks has had wide-ranging fallout.

Old feuds within the community were re-ignited. The FBI is investigating. The media were riled when publisher Mark Thomason and Fannin Focus attorney Russell Stookey were arrested on June 24 for seeking public records.

“Why didn’t she just release the records?” Stookey said recently. “I can’t understand what’s the big deal. Turn ‘em over.”

Weaver, on the bench for 20 years, refused to turn over the documents, saying the courts are not bound by the Georgia Open Records Law. Those records were included, however, in the file the District Attorney’s Office compiled, offering a glimpse of how the courts — or at least one court in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit — spend taxpayer dollars.

The day-to-day operation of a court

Weaver wrote two checks totaling $23.85 to Village Cleaners, last year. There also were several checks to Walmart, Target and Dollar Tree. Jasper City Florists was paid $58.85 in May 2015. A check for $25 went to Keep Pickens Beautiful; the Pickens Chamber of Commerce received $115.

Weaver also used $830 from the account to decorate Christmas trees.

“The courthouses in our three counties do decorate trees and offices for the holiday season and have been doing so since the circuit was created in 1983,” Weaver wrote in an email. “To my knowledge, no citizen has ever objected.”

The biggest single expense was in October for dinner at the Black Sheep, a high-end restaurant in Blue Ridge. There had already been a $274 check in August for lunch at the Black Sheep for Supreme Court staff to plan for arguments at the Pickens County Courthouse on Oct. 16. Weaver then spent $2,400 for dinner at the Black Sheep for the justices, their spouses and the court staff the evening before the high court heard arguments.

The next day, a lunch for the justices and about 200 others was at Bigun’s Barbecue, costing $2,050.

The county attorney for Fannin County, Lynn Doss, said her 15-year-old daughter attended the lunch. Doss said the education value was enormous because her daughter and her classmates experienced protesters outside the courthouse, heard arguments about an immigration issue and got to speak individually to the justices over lunch. Doss said it was “money well spent on educating students. … Those kids were enthralled.”

The records provided the AJC include copies of the quarterly checks from each county as well as bank statements and deposit slips.

Those are the records Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason was trying to obtain.

‘Being done solely for vindictive reasons’

When Weaver turned Thomason down, he asked Fannin County officials for the cashed checks, since that government is covered by the open records law. In his request, Thomason wrote that he was looking for checks that had been “illegally cashed.” “It was that choice of words that was the basis of the felony charge of making a false statement.

“An investigation of this matter will clearly show these false written statements and false oral allegations from Thomason and others are being done with ‘actual malice’ and solely for vindictive reasons,” Weaver wrote in an email to county officials.

Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity theft and attempted identity theft because they secured a subpoena for a copy of one check drawn on a judge’s account in an unrelated matter. A court reporter who sued Thomason but then dropped the case wanted to be reimbursed for her legal expenses. Weaver had already approved reimbursing Rhonda Stubblefield for her $15,691 in lawyers’ bills, so Stookey wanted a copy of the check to show that the court reporter’s debt had been covered.

But Weaver saw something nefarious. She said the two could use information printed on the checks to access the funds.

“I don’t believe you have a First Amendment right to attempt to obtain a third party’s bank records without providing proper notice to the person,” Weaver said last month in an email.

The felony charges against the two men were dismissed July 18, at Weaver’s request.

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