BLUE RIDGE, Ga. - A North Georgia judge covered most of the costs for his court reporter's lawsuit with a local newspaper.
An open records request revealed Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger Bradley paid about $15,700 from his publicly funded bank account in December to Rhonda Stubblefield, his court reporter. The money went toward some of Stubblefield's legal expenses for defending a lawsuit against the Fannin Focus.
The newspaper's publisher, Mark Thomason, said Monday a copy of that check was what he had been looking for in June when he requested a subpoena be issued for two judges' bank accounts, as well as an open records request. Instead, he was indicted on charges of identity fraud, attempt to commit identity fraud and making a false statement.
"That's the only thing we've been after this whole time," he said. "That one stinkin' check."
But Rita Davis-Kirby, the financial director for Fannin County, said the information should not be a surprise to Thomason. While the Times Free Press received an invoice through its records request for the money charged to Stubblefield, Davis-Kirby said she gave Thomason the same invoice.
"I do remember sending all of that information to Mark Thomason," she said Monday. "He had that information back in December."
Thomason said the invoice was not enough information for him. He wanted the check, too, because it would prove exactly how much money flowed from Bradley's account to Stubblefield.
"It didn't say who paid it," Thomason said of the invoice to Stubblefield. "It didn't say anything. The county never confirmed it was paid."
Charges against Thomason and his attorney have since been dropped after their arrest June 24 sparked national media attention.
In April 2015, Bradley used a racial slur for African-Americans while on the bench. Thomason said others in the courtroom told him sheriff's deputies also used the slur. However, Stubblefield's transcript of the hearing did not mention any deputies.
Thomason sued Stubblefield, asking for an audio recording of the hearing. A judge ruled against Thomason in September, saying she listened to the recording and could not hear any inaccuracies in the transcript.
Stubblefield counter sued, demanding $1.6 million from the newspaper. She dropped that case in April, saying the newspaper didn't have enough money to pay even if she won.
In May, her lawyer filed a motion for attorneys' fees. Thomason said the lawyer argued in court that taxpayer money had been spent to defend Stubblefield, even though Stubblefield is a private contractor, not a county employee.
On June 1, Thomason issued a subpoena, asking for the bank records of Bradley and Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver. He believed he would find a record of the payment to Stubblefield.
Thomason also issued an open records request to a Pickens County commissioner, asking for any checks issued to Weaver's bank account. He wrote in the request he had reason to believe the checks were cashed illegally.
On June 24, the grand jury indicted Thomason on identity fraud charges, with Weaver arguing that Thomason was illegally trying to get into her bank account. A key part of this charge was about whether Thomason's lawyer gave Weaver proper warning about the subpoena - the two sides provide different accounts.
The grand jury also indicted Thomason on a charge of making false statements for writing in his records request that he believed checks for Weaver's account were cashed illegally.
Thomason said he was hoping to confirm through documentation that the county spent taxpayer money on Stubblefield's legal fees. But according to a letter obtained Monday in a records request, this information was readily available.
"Because Ms. Stubblefield's actions leading up to the lawsuit were consistent with standing orders of this court and Georgia law as to access to transcripts she should not be personally responsible for the legal fees and expenses accrued in the defense of her case," Weaver wrote in a Nov. 24 letter to the commission chairs of Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties, which make up the Appalachian Judicial Circuit. "Judge Bradley has agreed for his office account to be responsible for her legal expenses."
Weaver told the commissioners the money would cover the costs of Stubblefield's defense against Thomason's lawsuit, but not her counter claim.
The Clark & Clark law firm presented Stubblefield with a bill for their services. According to the firm, about $16,600 worth of work went into defending Thomason's suit. About $1,000 went into the counter suit against Thomason.
On Dec. 7, Bradley signed a $15,691 check for Stubblefield's legal fees. Bradley retired in January. Stubblefield declined to comment.
The investigative file related to the criminal case against Thomason also included copies of all checks written out of Weaver's operating account, beginning in December 2014. This included about $4,200 Weaver wrote to reimburse herself, as well as about $4,400 to two restaurants for lunches for several people in the community in October, when Georgia Supreme Court justices came to the Appalachian Judicial Circuit to hear an oral argument.
"A person of interest"
Before District Attorney Alison Sosebee agreed not to prosecute Thomason or his attorney, an investigator in her office called a prosecutor in Union County, Ga., because Thomason had been listed as a person of interest in a shoplifting case there.
On July 11, Assistant District Attorney Chase Queen responded with a letter. He said Thomason had gone to a Wal-Mart where a shoplifting had occurred and asked for the security officer's case reports dealing with the arrest.
Queen wrote that Thomason identified himself as an investigator with Fannin County Probate Court, not as a reporter. The probate court judge, Scott Kiker, is Thomason's cousin.
"I am all too aware of the questionable character and bad reputation of Mr. Thomason," Queen wrote, adding that Thomason should have been charged with impersonating a public officer.
Thomason said Monday that, in fact, he had requested the reports as a favor for Kiker, who was acting as the defendant's lawyer and not the probate court judge.
Kiker said this was from a case about a year ago, though he provided a different account.
He didn't hire Thomason to investigate the case. He said Thomason went to the Wal-Mart to get information on the defendant as a reporter because the defendant is active at local political functions.
Queen's boss, Enotah Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jeff Langley, did not return a call seeking comment.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.