Co-defendants Mark Thomason, right, and Russell Stookey, who is Thomason’s lawyer, at the Gilmer County courthouse. (Rhonda Cook, rcook@ajc.com)
Photo: Rhonda Cook / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: Rhonda Cook / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Torpy at Large: Pushy journalist makes news when judge pushes back

If Mark Thomason is an identity fraud artist, he’s a bad one.

Thomason and his lawyer, Russell Stookey, were arrested in Blue Ridge in North Georgia on charges of identity fraud and making false statements. Thomason is a known troublemaker — he publishes the Fannin Focus, one of the county’s three newspapers. That’s right, Fannin County, population 22,000, has three (3!) print newspapers AND a news blog.

The felony charges against Thomason go back to a year-old fight he’s waged with the local Powers That Be, one that started with a prosecutor and a judge casually tossing around a racial slur in open court. What got the publisher tossed in the pokey last month was his insistence to get his hands on bank records to show Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver (who is not the judge in the racial slur episode) used public funds to pay a court reporter when she shouldn’t have.

Thomason first tried using the Open Records Act to come up with documentation. When that didn’t work, he got inventive and used a subpoena from ongoing litigation to demand the records from a bank.

Whoops! Thomason soon found himself stopped by police on a highway, handcuffed, strip-searched not once, but twice, forced to sleep overnight on a concrete jailhouse floor, and then tested for drugs not once, but twice, since his release.

The story has gone national, with First Amendment and newspaper groups saying his treatment represents an attack on Freedom of the Press. It’s David getting ‘cuffed by Goliath.

Thomason, who started his newspaper two years ago, is bemused. “If anyone wanted to commit ID fraud, the last thing they’d want to do is to file public records discussing it,” he said.

It seems Judge Weaver has gotten her robes all bunched up because Thomason is pesky and aggressive and has bothered the heck out of her and other local officials.

Weaver told the AJC’s Rhonda Cook she resented Thomason’s continuing attacks in his weekly newspaper and what he was saying around town.

“I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned,” said Weaver, who called the questioning of her spending a “vendetta.”

If Thomason was twisting the process by using a subpoena to get the bank records, it seems an odd way to access the judge’s operating account to, say, buy stuff on Amazon. No, his intention was to write about how the judge used taxpayer dollars.

It all started last year when a prosecutor casually mentioned a racial slur as the nickname of a witness in a case before Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley, who was Weaver’s colleague. Someone called Thomason about it and he started digging.

Thomason got a copy of the transcript, but it did not include other people (like two Fannin sheriff’s deputies) who used the slur, as he had been told by people in the courtroom.

The publisher demanded court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield turn over a tape recording of the proceedings. She wouldn’t. He sued her to get it. She slapped him with a $1.6 million defamation lawsuit.

Ultimately, yet another judge ruled the court reporter didn’t have to turn over the tape and Stubblefield dropped her defamation suit. But late last year, Judge Weaver stepped in and approved paying the court reporter $16,000 to cover her legal expenses, even though emails show at least one Fannin County administrator was uncomfortable with public money being spent to aide a private individual.

Weaver said she didn’t want the court reporter to be out all that money in attorney’s fees. And you certainly wouldn’t want an attorney to go unpaid. The court reporter’s attorney, Mary Beth Priest, is now a judge alongside Weaver.

Things get cozy in small towns like Blue Ridge.

For instance, the prosecutor who brought up the fraud charges against the newspaperman is District Attorney Alison Sosebee. When she got out of law school, she got a job as a law clerk — for Judge Weaver. And when she got her first lawyer job, it was with the firm of veteran attorney George Weaver, the judge’s husband.

Judges using the criminal justice system to settle a score or shut someone up could run afoul of the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, which investigates wrongdoing. (In fact, Bradley, the judge in the racial slur case that started all this, resigned this year as the JQC investigated him.)

A JQC spokesman said he couldn’t comment on the situation.

Incidentally, Judge Weaver is the JQC’s board chairman. Georgia’s legal community is, in essence, a small town.

And in Blue Ridge, the newspaper and its publisher are the talk of the town. Thomason’s divorce record and failure to pay child support have surfaced.

And there’s a deep divide on what people think.

Take Sheriff Dane Kirby, who took the publisher into custody: “I do not have a lot of confidence that what is printed in the Fannin Focus will be the truth.”

Or Blue Ridge Police Chief Johnny Scearce, who has played softball with Thomason: “He’s done my department fair. In two years, his paper has grown pretty popular. He’s pretty aggressive. He’s more detailed. He goes after it.”

And now they’re going after him.

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