Judge sued for coaching prosecutor, using law clerk to jail reporter

Judge Brenda Weaver
photo Mark Thomason

A former newspaper publisher and his attorney have sued a North Georgia judge, claiming she used her power to throw them in jail on trumped-up charges as they dug into her use of public funds.

In June 2016, Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver asked her law clerk to research Georgia code sections, hoping to find ways to charge Mark Thomason and Russell Stookey with crimes. She succeeded. Weaver forwarded advice from her clerk to District Attorney Alison Sosebee, emails show, and Sosebee pursued charges against the men.

In the preceding months, Thomason had unsuccessfully tried to get copies of canceled checks from Weaver's and another judge's publicly funded bank accounts. Weaver told him the checks were exempt from open records. Then, in the middle of a related lawsuit against a court reporter, Stookey tried to get the records through a subpoena. He, too, was unsuccessful.

A grand jury then indicted Thomason and Stookey on charges of identity theft and making false statements, prompting outrage among First Amendment associations. The advocates believed Weaver and Sosebee were attacking a reporter in the middle of an investigation. At Weaver's request, Sosebee dropped the charges two weeks later.

On Monday, attorneys for Sosebee and Thomason sued Weaver in U.S. District Court, claiming her actions amounted to "malicious prosecution," "retaliatory prosecution" and conspiracy to violate their First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Weaver has previously said she was acting as a victim of a crime with no more influence than any other Blue Ridge, Ga., resident. She believed Thomason and Stookey had acted illegally as they tried to get records from her bank account. She reached out to the district attorney and tried to offer helpful information, like any other resident could.

But Thomason and Stookey's attorneys argue she used the privileges of her position to get the men arrested. In particular, they point to the emails that show Weaver received help from her clerk. They also say Weaver held sway over Sosebee, who herself once served as Weaver's clerk before working in Weaver's husband's law firm. Emails show that Weaver told Sosebee who to bring in for questioning, as well as what questions to ask.

And then there is the grand jury indictment. According to the lawsuit, the grand jury initially declined to charge Thomason and Stookey. Weaver then "improperly influenced Sosebee and several grand jurors in the hallway of the courthouse, outside of the grand jury proceedings to return a true bill."

Jeffrey Filipovits, an attorney representing Thomason and Stookey, declined to tell the Times Free Press in an email how exactly he knows Weaver "improperly influenced" grand jurors.

"We have witnesses but are not at liberty to disclose them at this point or what we expect their testimony will be," he wrote in an email.

Laura Lones, an assistant attorney general, will represent Weaver in the lawsuit. A spokeswoman for the state agency said Friday "it is not our policy to comment on pending litigation."

The feud between Thomason and some public officials began shortly after he launched the Fannin Focus, a weekly newspaper that covered Blue Ridge. In April 2015, he quoted multiple witnesses who said Judge Roger Bradley used the N-word while telling a story from the bench.

This prompted a Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation, and Bradley retired months later. However, witnesses also told Thomason that sheriff's deputies in the courtroom played along with Bradley's story, using the N-word themselves. A transcript of the court hearing did not reflect this.

Thomason requested the court reporter's audio recording of the hearing. The court reporter declined to give it up, saying the recording was exempt from the open records act. Thomason then sued. He was still unsuccessful.

The court reporter, in turn, sued Thomason. She said he defamed her by writing that witnesses believed her transcript was inaccurate. She later dropped her lawsuit but wanted Thomason to pay for his attorney's fees. Thomason and Stookey, who was representing him, said they heard Weaver paid for the reporter's lawyer with public money.

Thomason said this was unethical. The court reporter is not a county employee. That's what prompted his open records request in 2016, as well as Stookey's subpoena. In the emails, Weaver's law clerk advised that Stookey did not follow proper procedure in issuing the subpoena. According to the indictment, his action was identity fraud.

In the middle of the scandal, Weaver resigned her post as chair of the JQC, the state agency that oversees judicial misconduct. In its own investigation of Weaver, the JQC cleared her of any wrongdoing.

"The evidence appears to show a personal dislike of the Judge," a member of the agency wrote in September. "The complaints are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to enlist the JQC in their fixation."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.