BLUE RIDGE, Ga. — About a week before a newspaper publisher went to jail, he was threatened by a judge's husband, a witness said.
In June, Herb Windham met with members of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit district attorney's office, who were deciding whether Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason broke the law. Thomason had sought documents from Judge Brenda Weaver's publicly funded operating account.
During the interview, obtained this week through an open records request, Windham suggested Weaver's family believed the newspaper publisher was a pawn, investigating the judge on behalf of political rivals. Windham, a friend of the family, recalled a conversation he had with the judge's husband, attorney George Weaver.
"Do me a favor," George Weaver told Windham. "Call [Blue Ridge Police Chief] Johnny Scearce. Tell him I'm coming after Johnny Scearce; [the] magistrate judge; Mark Thomason; [Russell] Stookey, the attorney up north; and the Dosses."
Stookey is Thomason's lawyer. Lynn Doss is the Fannin County attorney.
"Are you sure you really want me to do that?" Windham asked.
"Yeah," Weaver said.
During the interview, investigator Gregory Arp did not ask anything else about George Weaver's alleged threats. Arp was interested in Thomason and what kind of rumors he spread around town about the Weavers.
Soon after, on June 24, a grand jury indicted Thomason and Stookey. They were charged with identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud after Thomason issued a subpoena for Brenda Weaver's taxpayer-funded bank records. He wanted to use them for a civil case against a court reporter.
Because Brenda Weaver was not a party in the lawsuit, according to Georgia law, Thomason or Stookey needed to give her notice that they were trying to obtain her bank records. Brenda Weaver said they gave her no head's up. Stookey said he called her assistant — plus, he added, he and Thomason were asking for public funds, not the judge's private account.
The grand jury also indicted Thomason on a charge of making a false statement for filing an open records request for checks issued from the Pickens County general fund to Brenda Weaver's account. Thomason wrote in the request that he had reason to believe some of those checks were cashed illegally.
District Attorney Alison Sosebee since has dropped those charges, amid national media attention and criticism from First Amendment organizations. On Thursday, George Weaver denied threatening Stookey or Thomason.
"Hell no," he told a reporter. "I don't want to get involved with this. I suggest you call Herb."
Windham declined to comment for this story, saying he is trying to remain friends with all the players on both sides. But the conversation he described to the district attorney's office aligns with an email Brenda Weaver sent Sosebee on June 18 concerning the county attorney.
"She needs to be questioned about how many times she has met with Thomason, [Probate Judge Scott] Kiker, Searcy [sic], Stookey to discuss Stubblefield case or 'getting the Weavers.'"
The arrests of Stookey and Thomason two months ago sparked controversy in Fannin County, a community in the Blue Ridge mountains with a population of about 23,000.
Supporters of the newspaper accused Brenda Weaver of abusing her power by leaning on the district attorney to trump up charges against Thomason for investigating the judge. Supporters of the Weavers say Thomason is an advocate for other politicians in town and tried to tear down the judge to benefit his friends.
Meanwhile, federal agents are trying to sort through the claims on each side. A spokesperson for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation told the Times Free Press last week that the FBI is investigating what happened that led to Thomason's arrest. And on Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a federal grand jury issued subpoenas this week for documents related to the case.
Sosebee and Brenda Weaver did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.
The saga between the judge and Thomason began last March, when another judge used a racial slur during a hearing. Thomason reported that some people in court that day heard sheriff's deputies also using the slur, though that does not appear in the transcript of court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield.
Thomason sued Stubblefield, asking for the audio recording of the hearing. Stubblefield countersued Thomason, claiming he defamed her character by questioning the authenticity of her transcript. A judge denied Thomason's request for the audio, and Stubblefield later dropped her countersuit, saying Thomason didn't have the money to pay her even if she won.
In November, records show, Brenda Weaver wrote commissioners from Fannin, Gilmer and Pickens counties to tell them she wanted to use their taxpayers' money to pay some of Stubblefield's legal fees. The money would go toward her defense, not her countersuit. Brenda Weaver said this was the right move because Stubblefield was sued for doing her job.
In December, the judge who used the racial slur — Roger Bradley — signed a check from his operating account to Stubblefield for about $15,700. Bradley retired a month later.
On June 1, Thomason issued subpoenas for Bradley's and Weaver's publicly funded bank accounts. He could use a subpoena because the documents were going to be part of the lawsuit with Stubblefield. He said he wanted to find the exact check that went toward Stubblefield.
After he followed this up with the records request suggesting Brenda Weaver illegally cashed checks, the judge asked Sosebee to investigate the case. That's when Sosebee's employees interviewed Windham, as well as a former Fannin Focus employee.
Melissa Griffin said she joined the staff soon after Thomason launched the newspaper in 2014. She said she and other staff members were excited to investigate the county's power players, though some grew disillusioned with Thomason.
She said he was elusive about what he was working on, often mentioning meeting with the FBI. One time, she said, she pranked him by putting a note on his desk, telling him a U.S. marshal had called him. Days later, she said, he announced to the staff that he needed to leave the office to meet with that marshal.
During the interview, Arp asked Griffin how the newspaper functioned. He asked who funded the newspaper and how much the staff made. He also asked who was feeding Thomason information.
"Does [McCaysville Police Chief Michael Earley] come up to the office," Arp asked, "or did [Thomason] come to him?"
"Both," Griffin said.
"What was Michael telling him?"
"I have no idea."
Sosebee did not respond to an email asking why her office was investigating the newspaper's operations.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett