Tourists in downtown Blue Ridge stroll past a fudge shop, a brewpub, restaurants and stores that sell homey signs, and what they see is a quiet, quaint, friendly mountain community.
What they don’t see is the raw, wrestle-in-the-mud ugliness just beneath that made-for-tourism surface. When county and courthouse politics are in play, people use words like “cartel’ and “cabal.”
And in the middle of the maelstrom is the publisher of a 2-year-old weekly newspaper who dared to ask how judges in the Appalachian Judicial Circuit spent taxpayers' money — and went to jail for asking.
And now, those outside the county have glimpsed the ugliness. Media statewide, as well as some news organizations beyond the state, have reported that the chief judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit was behind the indictment and jailing of the publisher of the Fannin Focus, Mark Thomason, and his 70-year-old attorney, Russell Stookey, because they tried to get some records regarding a public bank account she controlled.
“It is scary any time criminal remedies are even contemplated in connection with free speech,” said Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.
Thomason had filed an request under Georgia's Open Records Act for copies of cashed checks that he described as "illegally cashed." For that he was charged with making a false statement. Thomason and Stookey also were charged with identity theft and attempted identity theft after they secured subpoenas for copies of checks drawn on bank accounts assigned to the offices of the judges in the three-county circuit.
Chief Judge Brenda Weaver has said she asked District Attorney Alison Sosebee to bring the charges. “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned,” Weaver said just days after the indictment was returned on June 24.
Less than a week later, Weaver asked Sosebee to drop the case.
A visiting judge on Monday officially dropped the criminal charges against Thomason and Stookey.
But now Weaver is facing several complaints filed against her with the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which she chairs.
‘The frenzy of freedom of speech’
Try to keep up: the chief judge is married to a prominent defense attorney who at one time was the district attorney for the circuit. The current district attorney was the chief judge’s clerk and also worked in the law firm of the judge’s husband. The mayor of Jasper, in Pickens County, is the judge’s brother-in-law. A judge appointed to the bench earlier this year was the attorney for a woman who sued Mark Thomason, the newspaper publisher.
That woman was Rhonda Stubblefield, a court reporter, who wrote an email and attachment to the AJC last week that totaled 1,196 words.
“Our town seems to be divided and feeding on the frenzy of freedom of speech,” Stubblefield wrote.
Stubblefield, the subject of some of Thomason’s stories, is with the faction that has demonized the newspaperman and Stookey.
“The Fannin Focus, Mark Thomason and Russell Stookey are relentless in their efforts to create controversy and spread untruths,” Stubblefield wrote.
Thomason and Stookey say they were doing their jobs.
Weaver did not respond to requests for comment for this article. But previously, the judge questioned Thomason’s character, making allegations similar to those made by Stubblefield and others.
Stubblefield also wrote that Thomason had twice failed random drug-alcohol screens required of him when he was released on bond; he passed all five he took.
“I’m sure they would have arrested me if I had (failed),” Thomason said.
Gambling problem: scratch-off tickets
There also are allegations that Thomason gambles. That’s not true, those close to him said. “He would buy those scratch off things (lottery tickets) but that’s the only gambling I know about,” said Delainge Dills, grandfather of Thomason’s ex-wife, who says he still sees Thomason often.
Rumors are that Thomason has been jailed for not honoring his child support obligations. Thomason has records that show the monthly payment is automatically withdrawn from his credit card.
His detractors say he doesn’t pay his employees.
“That’s not true,” said editor Jason Banks. A few times last year, checks were late a few days but employees were told in advance. No one is owed money now, Banks said.
“He’s had some problems but nothing serious,” Dills said. “He pays his child support. As far as being incarcerated, I’ve never heard of that. … They have tried to close down his paper since it opened.”
It has even been pointed out several times that Thomason lives in his mother’s basement, which is true.
“Mark tends to ruffle feathers,” said Fannin County attorney Lynn Doss, who was the subject of Thomason’s first series of investigative stories.
“The bigger question is why would anyone have such a reaction to an inquiry by a Podunk paper?” Doss asked. “The individual in me says this (questions about court spending) has hit a raw nerve, and why it hit a raw nerve is a bigger question.”
Weaver believes Doss was behind Thomason’s questions. Doss said she was not.
“It’s a small town,” Doss said.
‘Didn’t like what the paper printed’
While Stookey also went to jail for a night and was charged with two felonies, most of the public attention has been on Thomason, a 37-year-old native of Fannin County.
Mark Thomason grew up in Fannin County, and his family has lived there for generations.
He had several careers, including one with the family hardware and lumber business. He went into the newspaper business when he took a sales job with the News Observer in Blue Ridge. He was fired after a disagreement with the editor.
A few months later, in 2014, he started the Fannin Focus, circulation 5,000, with the slogan “intent on integrity” printed on the nameplate. The Fannin Focus was the fourth newspaper, one of them exclusively online, to serve the county of less than 24,000.
“I leveraged everything I had,” Thomason said about starting the newspaper, which now employs nine full- and part-time people. “I had some money saved up. I’d always been a sports fanatic and collector of vintage sports memorabilia. I sold a lot of it. And I extended my credit as far as it would go.”
Thomason started his new endeavor by repeatedly asking for public documents, using the Georgia Open Records Act.
One of his first investigative stories was to question how much Fannin paid county attorney Doss, whom Thomason has known all his life.
“I don’t like what the paper printed,” Doss said. “(But) I thought it was totally fair.”
Drama began with racial slur in court
He also wrote a series of stories about checks missing from the Fannin County Recreation Department and then-director Bernie Hodskins writing checks to himself and hiring of his own children despite a policy prohibiting employing relatives. The county fired Hodskins in April 2015.
But it was his reporting that a now-former judge and an assistant district attorney used a racial slur during a hearing that went too far in the opinions of some locals.
Judge Roger Bradley used the slur in reference to a witness during a March 2015 hearing. Bradley resigned as the Judicial Qualifications Commission investigated his behavior.
But Thomason heard deputies had also used the racial slur and wanted to confirm that through transcripts. According to the transcripts, only Bradley and an assistant district attorney used the word, but Thomason believed the audio recordings would show otherwise.
He sued June 26, 2015, to force the court reporter and the judges to let him hear the recording to verify that the transcript was correct. Two months later, a visiting judge determined the transcript was accurate and closed Thomason’s case.
By then Stubblefield, the court reporter, had sued Thomason for $1.6 million for defaming her when he wrote stories suggesting that the transcripts were inaccurate. Stubblefield dropped her suit last April.
But that ending was also a beginning.
‘I absolutely have no vendetta’
Judge Weaver, using her court account, had reimbursed Stubblefield for $16,000 in attorney fees she incurred while defending against Thomason’s suit. Stubblefield is not a public employee but works for the court on contract.
In May, long after she had received the reimbursement from the judge, Stubblefield sued Thomason and Stookey for the same attorney fees.
That led Stookey and Thomason to get a subpoena for canceled checks written on the judges’ office accounts. They hoped to show that Stubblefield had already been paid $16,000 for her legal costs. Stubblefield’s lawyer, however, said she wanted Thomason and Stookey to pay the legal fees so she could reimburse taxpayers for the money she’d received.
Weaver learned of the subpoenas and the records request in mid-June. Within 10 days a grand jury in Pickens County, where Weaver lives, had indicted Thomason and Stookey.
Weaver said Thomason had a “personal vendetta” against her and all he printed was lies.
"I absolutely have no vendetta," he said, noting that he had not met Weaver. "Bottom line is part of my job, I felt, was trying to hold a government official accountable. And, to date, Judge Weaver still refuses to provide account history from what she calls her account."
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