Calling a complaint against her "meritless," an oversight group declined to discipline a North Georgia judge who arranged for the arrest of a journalist.
"No evidence has been presented to show any violation of the Code of Judicial Ethics by Judge [Brenda] Weaver," the board of the Judicial Qualifications Commission wrote in a ruling released by Weaver on Friday. "Instead, the evidence appears to show a personal dislike of the Judge. The complaints are nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to enlist the JQC in their fixation."
In June 2016, Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason was in the middle of defending himself in a defamation lawsuit filed by a court reporter after he claimed that the transcript of a particular court case was not accurate.
Knowing that Weaver had funded the court reporter's lawsuit with public funds, Thomason tried to issue a subpoena for checks from Weaver's operating account.
Around the same time, he also filed an open records request with the Pickens County Commission for any checks commissioners had given Weaver for her account. Thomason wrote that he had reason to believe that someone illegally cashed those checks.
Weaver hit back.
She lobbied Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee to indict Thomason and his lawyer, Russell Stookey. She said they tried to commit identity fraud with their subpoenas for access to her operating account, which she claimed held personal information like her Social Security numbers.
In particular, they did not give Weaver written notice of the subpoena, as required by Georgia law. Stookey said he called the judge's office, though her staff denies that. Also, Weaver believed Thomason committed the crime of making a false statement in his open records request — because he said checks had illegally been cashed.
A grand jury did, in fact, indict Thomason and Stookey in June 2016. And they went to jail. And what followed was a national media storm over a powerful judge arranging for the arrest of a small-town journalist.
Complicating the case? Weaver's relationship with Sosebee. Before she became district attorney, Sosebeee clerked for Weaver. Then, she worked with Weaver's husband. In emails obtained by the Times Free Press, Weaver fed Sosebee state code sections, explaining how Thomason and Stookey broke the law.
Weaver also told Sosebee who she should bring to the stand, and what questions she should ask. When the media storm hit, Weaver told Sosebee to drop the charges. Sosebee complied.
Thomason and Stookey filed complaints with the JQC, saying Weaver abused her power as a judge to bend Sosebee to her will. Sure, anybody can request that a prosecutor take a case to a grand jury. And anybody can feed a prosecutor legal advice for a case. But as a judge, they said, Weaver could actually put pressure on Sosebee, especially considering she used to be her boss.
The JQC board did not see it that way. They interviewed Sosebee, according to the filing, who "stated unequivocally that she was not influenced by the Judge."
In a separate complaint, attorney Lynn Doss said Weaver overstepped her bounds when she and the other local judges recused themselves from hearing any of Doss' cases. Filled with attorneys, the Doss and Weaver families are rivals in the area. And while looking into Thomason, Weaver found that Doss had given him one of her checks, helping him subpoena information from her operating account.
That's what triggered the recusal.
But before she issued the recusal, Weaver sent a draft to Sosebee, asking her opinion. Doss said this was inappropriate, ex parte (one-sided) communication between the judge and the prosecutor without Doss' consent. The JQC's filing does not make mention of this issue.
JQC Director Benjamin Easterlin said he does not think that particular issue was filed as a complaint to the group, explaining why they didn't look into it.
On Friday, Thomason called the JQC's ruling "mind blowing."
Stookey had a similar reaction.
"The JQC is a friggin' joke," he said. "It's just a joke."
In particular, both men criticized the agency for failing to interview either of them. The two filed their complaints in June 2016 and were never brought in for questioning. Thomason criticized the conclusion of the JQC's ruling, which argues that his complaint was part of a personal rivalry with Weaver.
"For them to imply that I have a vendetta, they're either a Jedi and read people's minds, or they assume things awfully well," he said. "I was never asked a single question."
Easterlin said the agency determined they didn't need to bring Thomason or Stookey in because they were not credible. He also pointed to some Facebook posts that Stookey made. He wrote that the FBI told him his life was in danger, which Easterlin said was false. He wrote that he had found more than $1 million of misspending in the judge's operating account, which Easterlin said was also false.
In one post, Stookey wrote that if it were up to him, he would have "bodies hanging from street lights now" over Weaver's actions.
Asked about this on Friday, Stookey said: "There is corruption. And then there is super corruption. You're talking about draining the swamp? That's a swamp, and it needs to be drained. The only way you can get rid of that crowd is to either hang them or vote them out of office."
The Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also filed a complaint against Weaver, which was dismissed. In a statement, the SPJ criticized the ruling, saying the judicial agency was covering up for a judge who pushed for an arrest over an open records request.
Stookey said the agency was simply protecting one of its own. But Easterlin pointed out that the JQC has earned praise for its aggressive investigations. Since July 1, he said, three judges stepped down amid complaints filed to the group.
Weaver did not respond to specific questions about the ruling in an email conversation.
Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.