BLUE RIDGE, Ga. - A judge coached a prosecutor to arrest a local reporter, emails show.
Communications obtained through an open records request reveal Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver gave District Attorney Alison Sosebee advice about prosecuting the publisher of the Fannin Focus newspaper, as well as his lawyer.
Weaver sent Sosebee a state code section that could be used against the publisher, Mark Thomason, and his attorney, Russell Stookey. Weaver also told Sosebee how to cross examine some potential witnesses in the case.
The advice came after Thomason tried to see the cash flow for Weaver's publicly funded bank account. Sosebee presented a case to a grand jury, which on June 24 indicted Thomason and Stookey on charges of identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud for their efforts to access documents pretaining to Weaver's operating account. The grand jury also indicted Thomason on a count of making false statements, in reference to a records request he filed.
The emails obtained this week provide a behind-the-scenes account of how the judge and prosecutor worked together in the case against Thomason and Stookey. They also reveal the nature of the relationship between Weaver and Sosebee, who once worked for the judge and her husband.
"For the DA to take this without much of an investigation and turn it into a criminal indictment is really disturbing," said Bob Rubin, president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "It certainly gives the appearance that the DA was doing the judge's bidding."
Thomason's indictment in late June drew national media attention. First amendment organizations condemned the charges, saying Sosebee overstepped her authority in punishing a reporter for a records request. On July 18, at Weaver's request, a judge granted a motion to not prosecute the case.
Since then, Thomason has filed a complaint against Weaver with the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the organization that oversees misconduct by Georgia judges. Weaver is the chairwoman of that organization. Also, multiple sources say, the FBI is investigating the circumstances surrounding Thomason's and Stookey's arrests.
Stookey and Thomason said they plan to file civil lawsuits against Weaver, as well as Fannin County.
"They've gotten away with doing this kind of crap for years there," Stookey said. "There is nobody in that crowd that is smart. It is absolutely the dumbest crowd that I have seen. Maybe they'll learn from this."
Roots of the case
The cases against Stookey and Thomason began last summer, when they sued a court reporter. In April 2015, Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley used a racial slur for African Americans from the bench. Thomason wrote that others in the room that day claimed sheriff's deputies had also used the racial slur, though that did not appear in the court reporter's transcript.
Thomason and Stookey sued for an audio recording of the hearing. A judge ruled against them, saying that the transcript seemed consistent with an audio recording of the hearing that she heard. The court reporter, Rhonda Stubblefield, then sued Thomason's newspaper, the Fannin Focus, for $1.6 million. She later dropped the complaint.
Then, the two sides fought about attorneys' fees. Stookey and Thomason said Stubblefield's lawyer admitted that Weaver paid for Stubblefield's legal defense with taxpayer money. Stubblefield is not a county employee, making the lawsuit a private case.
On June 1, Thomason issued subpoenas for access to Weaver's operating account, which is funded by taxpayers in Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties. On June 13, Thomason filed a records request for checks from Pickens County to Weaver's account. He wrote in the request that he had reason to believe the checks had been cashed illegally.
That same day, emails show, Pickens County Commission Chairman Rob Jones forwarded Thomason's request to Weaver. Weaver then forwarded it to Sosebee, as well as a district attorney's office investigator.
On June 17, Weaver emailed Jones and carbon copied Sosebee, multiple sheriffs, a GBI agent and commission chairmen for other counties. She said she had already requested a criminal investigation against Thomason for the records request he sent.
"The allegations that I or anyone in my office have 'illegally cashed checks' are absolutely false," Weaver wrote.
The next day, she sent emails to Sosebee's personal account. Around 10 a.m., she told Sosebee that the key to the criminal case is Thomason's statement in the records request that the checks had been cashed illegally. She also told Sosebee to question Fannin County Attorney Lynn Doss about giving copies of checks to Thomason - which Thomason then used to subpoena her operating account.
Weaver added: "Stookey needs to be questioned about how he got (a copy of) the check and his continued efforts to get more checks."
Later that day, Weaver's law clerk sent her an email with a state code section about the proper process for getting bank account information through a subpoena. The clerk told Weaver that the person issuing the subpoena needs to alert the owner of the bank account.
Weaver forwarded the message to Sosebee, with a note: "Stookey was required to give me notice and did not."
Stookey denied this, telling the Times Free Press that he called Weaver's assistant when the subpoenas had been issued. He said he left a message and didn't hear back from Weaver.
"I find it amazing that Judge Weaver has the audacity to use her judicial authority to direct her constituents how she wants things done," Thomason said upon learning about the emails.
Sosebee and Weaver did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this story. The two have been close for years. In 2001, after she graduated from law school, Sosebee worked as Weaver's law clerk. A year later, she began to practice law with Weaver's husband, George Weaver. She ran for district attorney in 2012, and George Weaver donated $1,000 to her campaign.
"She's clearly influencing the district attorney," Stookey said of Brenda Weaver.
In one email, Brenda Weaver wrote that she had been in contact with a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent about Thomason and Stookey's requests for bank account information. But on Wednesday, GBI Director of Public Affairs Scott Dutton said his office declined to look into the case because FBI agents are already investigating "the entire situation."
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.