Open Records In Georgia Mean Closed Cell Doors For The Press
July 5, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit doesn’t care for those who dare to question her integrity. Her position as head of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission requires her moral fiber remain above reproach. That’s why she reached out to a former clerk, now the Appalachian Judicial Circuit’s District Attorney, and had a journalist and his lawyer indicted, arrested, and jailed over a frivolous defamation suit from a court reporter.
Mark Thomason’s pursuit of the truth, and his attorney’s zealous defense of that work in a civil trial, now leave the two facing felony charges.
Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.
Thomason’s relentless pursuit of public records relating to the local Superior Court has incensed the court’s chief judge, Brenda Weaver, who also chairs the state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Weaver took the matter to the district attorney, who obtained the indictments.
The charges are the culmination of a defamation suit filed by court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield after she refused to release the audio recording of a court proceeding where Judge Roger Bradley and Assistant DA Morris Martin used a racial slur while discussing the case of a local man, Ray Green. Thomason found it newsworthy that courtroom deputies allegedly used the same derogatory term when discussing Green, and asked Stubblefield for the transcript. That’s where the entire debacle veers into lunacy.
Stubblefield, in an audio conversation with Thomason, allegedly told the journalist it took longer than usual to finish the transcript as Judge Bradley had advised her to not release it. If Stubblefield did, according to the conversation, Bradley directed the parts of the conversation with the “N-Word” would be considered “off the record.” Once Thomason finally received the transcript, it did contain instances of Judge Bradley and ADA Martin using the racial slur, but didn’t list anyone else, as Stubblefield left them out of the transcript. They would, however, but audible on the recording of the proceedings.
Thomason wrote about this series of events, and his refusal to retract his stories angered Stubblefield. When he filed a Motion to Compel the release of the audio recording, Stubblefield responded with a $1.6 million libel suit.
Last April, Stubblefield dropped her claim, realizing a journalist whose publication depended on the Chattanooga Times Free Press’s dough might lack the capacity to pony up that much cash. She filed a motion to recoup her attorney fees, despite now former Judge Bradley’s operating account funding her suit to the tune of $16,000. Stubblefield’s attorney, Mary Beth Priest, saw nothing wrong with this, as her intention was to pay the city back for Bryant’s good-faith decision to fund Stubblefield’s libel suit.
Thomason’s counsel, Russell Stookey then filed an Open Records Request with Pickens County Commissioner Robert P. Jones, asking for “the actual cleared checks (front/back) that Pickens County has written to Judge Brenda Weaver and Judge Roger Bradley for Pickens County’s portion of the quarterly operating account expenses for the judges from the years 2013, 2014, and 2015.” That, combined, with a subpoena to the bank handling those funds, prompted Judge Weaver to drop the hammer.
Weaver said the identify fraud allegations came out of her concern that Thomason would use the banking information on those checks for himself.
Run that statement through the patented Fault Lines’ “Bullshit-To-Honesty Translator” and you’ll find out the real reason Thomason and Stookey face felony charges comes from Stookey’s subpoena to the bank. According to the indictment, Stookey allegedly failed to provide Judge Weaver notice when subpoenaing Stearns Bank, the financial institution that managed the Court’s operational accounts. You have to notify the party whose bank records you’re subpoenaing, but does that warrant Judge Weaver injecting herself in a case with criminal charges against a journalist and his attorney?
The answer is no, and Judge Weaver really needs to look at the laws she’s sworn to uphold before getting angry and having her former clerk, now District Attorney, charge someone. Issuing a subpoena for bank records that are the concern of a civil suit doesn’t meet a single element of Georgia’s Identity Theft statute. It’s not “willfully and fraudulently using” information obtained through a Open Records Request if you issue a subpoena in defense of a client.
According to Georgia’s Open Records Act, disclosing the bank number “might” constitute an unauthorized distribution to an unintended recipient, but even so, the first offense on that is a fine, not felony charges. This doesn’t even cover a “substantial step” to meet the “attempted identity theft” charge on the indictment. We’ve not even met the “making a false statement” charge yet, and that’s questionable as well.
The “False Statement” charge, according to the Georgia Statute, requires someone “knowingly and willingly” make a “false, fictitious or fraudulent representation” “in any matter within the jurisdiction” of a government. Thomason’s allegedly “false” statement is him opining to Chairman Jones some of the checks provided him “appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally.” It may be of no material relevance, but if a prosecutor has evidence in Georgia that’s a “fictitious statement” made “knowingly and “willingly,” then it’s enough to present to a grand jury. If that prosecutor previously clerked for the presiding Judge, and worked for that Judge’s husband to boot, like B. Alison Sosebee did, then you can bet your bottom dollar that grand jury presentment will be incredibly persuasive.
Defamation is hard to prove. Free speech and a free press are two ideas on which this country was founded. When the head of the group that oversees judicial conduct in Georgia uses her powers and connections to concoct an indictment that might conceal the judicial bankrolling of a frivolous defamation suit, it’s a scary day for the First Amendment.
When that same judge criminalizes a journalist’s opinion of information obtained through a legitimate Open Records Act request, it’s time to reconsider whether that jurist should be sitting at the head of the table overseeing judicial conduct in Georgia.