Friday, July 01, 2016

Weekly publisher jailed by judge who didn't like his stories about her; his records request cited

UPDATE, July 6: The Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has filed a complaint against Judge Weaver with the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, which she chairs, and asked that she recuse herself in the case. "We are unable to publicly share the complaint, because the JQC’s rules require that all complaints be kept confidential until they’ve been resolved," the chapter says. "We can say that we feel there have been several potential violations of the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct. We hope JQC will launch an investigation immediately. . . . SPJ Georgia has also signed onto a joint statement from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Atlanta Press Club and the Georgia Press Association calling for the dismissal of all charges against Thomason."

Mark Thomason
A rural newspaper publisher in North Georgia and his lawyer were jailed this week by a local judge who was unhappy about being negatively portrayed in the press and pounced when the publisher filed an open-records request, Rhonda Cook reports for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus in Blue Ridge, and attorney Russell Stookey were arrested June 24 "and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request." Thomason filed his request to get transcripts of officials using a racial slur in court. He was denied the records and later sued for $1.6 million for defamation by the court stenographer for saying that her transcripts, which omitted some of the slurs, were not accurate.

Superior Court Chief Judge Brenda Weaver of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit "said she resented Thomason’s attacks on her character in his weekly newspaper and in conversations with her constituents," Cook writes. Weaver and district attorney Alison Sosebee said the charges were justified. Weaver told Cook, “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned. It’s clear this is a personal vendetta against me. I don’t know how else to explain that.”

Thomason "was charged with making a false statement in an open-records request in which he asked for copies of checks 'cashed illegally',” Cook writes. "Thomason and Stookey were also charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they did not get Weaver’s approval before sending subpoenas to banks where Weaver and another judge maintained accounts for office expenses. Weaver suggested that Thomason may have been trying to steal banking information." A follow-up story by Cook offers more background. (Best Places map)

"Thomason and Stookey are out on $1,000 bond and have a long list of things they cannot do or things they must do to avoid going to jail until their trials," Cook writes. "On Thursday, for example, Thomason reported to a pretrial center and was told that he may have to submit to a random drug test – a condition of the bond on which he was released from jail last Saturday."

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told Cook, “To the extent these criminal charges stem from the use of the Open Records Act undermines the entire purpose of the law. The Open Records Act is the vehicle by which citizens access governmental information. . . . Retaliation for use of the Open Records Act will inhibit every citizen from using it, and reel us back into the dark ages.” (Read more)

UPDATE: The Society of Professional Journalists called the Georgia attorney general about the case. “We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question,” SPJ said, noting that any personal banking information in the requested records could be redacted from copies given to Thomason.

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