Monday, August 22, 2016

Georgia journalist arrested over open records request related to court

New York, July 6, 2016--The Committee to Protect Journalists called on prosecutors today to drop all charges against Mark Thomason, the publisher of local weekly newspaper Fannin Focus, in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Thomason, who was arrested June 24, faces felony charges including making a false statement in an open records request.

Thomason, who was released on a $10,000 bond June 25, told CPJ he could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. As well as being accused of making a false statement, he said he faces additional felony charges of identity fraud and attempted identity fraud in relation to a subpoena for information about court bank accounts.

The open record request and subpoena relate to a legal battle over a previous open records request filed by Thomason when he was investigating allegations that a judge used a racial slur, according to statements by the journalist and court documents reviewed by CPJ. The attorney who helped him file the subpoena, Russell Stookey, also faces charges, according to reports.


The legal dispute is connected to a defamation case brought against Thomason in 2015 by court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield, who accused the journalist of libel over a story that said her transcripts may be incomplete, according to The Associated Press. Stubblefield sued the journalist after he filed a records request for a court transcript and audio recording, after it was alleged that a judge used a racial slur in court and that not every instance of the slur being used was recorded, according to reports.

The case, in which damages of $1.6 million were sought, was dropped but in April, Stubblefield sued Thomason for $16,000 to cover her attorney costs, the AP reported.

Thomason told CPJ that he and his lawyer subpoenaed checks from two public checking accounts that are used to pay court expenses. He said they believed the accounts, one of which was a courthouse account in the name of Chief Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, would show that the court had paid the court reporter's legal fees. Thomason also filed an open records request to a bank where the Appalachian judicial circuit operating accounts were allegedly housed, to seek records of checks that the county had written to the judges. In the request, Thomason said that "some checks appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally," reports said.

Weaver, chief judge of the local superior court, told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that she was upset by the subpoena and the records request. Weaver told the newspaper she believed Thomason's reporting was part of a vendetta against her.

According to Gawker, Weaver asked district attorney Alison Sosebee to file the indictments against the journalist.

The indictments for identity fraud relate to the subpoena and claim that Thomason sought the bank information to "unlawfully appropriate resources of [Judge Weaver]." It said that he issued the subpoena "without the consent of Brenda S. Weaver."


Luis Ferre Sadurni | Freedom of Information | News | July 7, 2016

Following almost two weeks of pressure from free speech groups and press coverage, a Georgia district attorney moved to drop felony charges against a newspaper publisher and his attorney earlier today.


On June 13, a judge dismissed Stubblefield’s claim to recoup attorneys’ fees from Thomason. Almost a week later, Thomason and Stookey were indicted and jailed after Weaver contacted district attorney Sosebbee with her fear that the men might steal her personal bank records. They were released on $10,000 bond and, in Thomason’s case, under strict bond conditions, which included drug tests and a bar that impedes him from covering the courthouse for his newspaper.

“I adhered to and followed Georgia law during the entire process,” Thomason said. “The judge has gone on record saying that she takes this personal. It’s not personal. My attorney’s sole intention throughout this was to show that attorney fees had already been paid, which the judge admitted.”



Weaver’s conduct now will be reviewed by the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, an independent agency that investigates alleged judicial misconduct and can recommend sanctions including removal from office.


Aug. 12, 2016

Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, under fire for helping obtain an indictment against a local newspaper publisher and his lawyer, has resigned as a member and chair of the state’s judicial watchdog agency.


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