- Associated Press - Friday, July 1, 2016

JASPER, Ga. (AP) - The publisher of a small, weekly north Georgia newspaper was jailed, along with his lawyer, after officials alleged his open records request for county checks written to two local judges included a criminal falsehood, and that a subpoena they issued constituted an attempt to commit identity fraud.

The charges have drawn condemnation from a state journalism organization, but the local prosecutor said they were justified.

The three-count indictment filed June 24 in Pickens County Superior Court, accuses Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus newspaper of making a false statement. It also charges him and his lawyer, Russell Stookey, with identity fraud and attempt to commit identity fraud.

The two were arrested June 24 and have been released on bond.

The indictment, provided to The Associated Press by Thomason, says Thomason sent an open records request to the Pickens County Commission chairman asking for three years’ worth of cleared checks from the county to Judge Brenda Weaver, chief judge of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, and Judge Roger Bradley for the judges’ quarterly operating expenses.

The indictment says Thomason knowingly made a false statement in the request when he said some checks “appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally.”

The identity fraud charges stem from subpoenas Thomason and Stookey sent to a bank that included Weaver’s checking account number. The indictment accuses them of intending to “unlawfully appropriate resources” belonging to Weaver, specifically her banking information.

Thomason said he was shocked at the charges.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit District Attorney Alison Sosebee told the AP on Friday that the false statement “has nothing to do with an attempt of Mr. Thomason to access records utilizing the Open Records Act.”

She said the charge “specifically relates to the statement that he included within his request.” Sosebee said she couldn’t elaborate on the charges since the case is open but that the charges related to Thomason and Stookey’s use of the subpoena were “based on a totality of the circumstances.”

Weaver didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment Friday from The Associated Press. She told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/29haJEg) that Thomason attacked her character in his newspaper and that she believes others in the community were using Thomason to get at her because of a personal vendetta.

“I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned,” Weaver said.

The charges stem from a legal battle with a court reporter over the release of an audio recording of a court hearing. Thomason said a racial slur was used at the hearing, and the court reporter’s transcript didn’t include all the instances when it was uttered.

“All I wanted to do was write the story and be done,” Thomason told the AP by phone Friday.

As Thomason tried to get the recording, he said, court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield sued him for libel because he had written a story that said her transcript may not be accurate.

A judge concluded that Thomason hadn’t produced evidence that the transcript was inaccurate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports, and Stubblefield dropped her counterclaim in April.

But the following month, Stubblefield filed paperwork asking to be reimbursed for attorney’s fees, even though she had been paid nearly $16,000 from Bradley’s operating account, the newspaper reports.

Weaver said the judges decided to use court money to cover the court reporter’s legal expenses.

“She was being accused of all this stuff. She was very distressed. She had done absolutely nothing wrong,” Weaver said. “She was tormented all these months and then had to pay attorneys’ fees. And the only reason she was sued was she was doing what the court policy was.”

Stubblefield wanted Thomason or his attorney to pay the fees so she could reimburse the court, because it’s unfair to expect taxpayers to foot the bill, her lawyer, Herman Clark, said.

Stookey, Thomason’s lawyer, filed subpoenas for copies of checks so he could show her attorneys had already been paid, the Journal-Constitution reports.

Weaver said the identity fraud charges arose because she worried Thomason would misuse her personal banking information on the checks.

The Georgia chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists condemned Weaver’s actions calling them retaliatory and an abuse of her power.

“The response by the judge is absolutely astounding and is nothing more than a blatant attempt to silence a publication that has been critical of her conduct,” the organization said in a statement on its website.

The organization is calling for an inquiry by the Judicial Qualifications Commission, a state agency that investigates allegations of wrongdoing by judges. Because Weaver chairs that organization, she must recuse herself from any such inquiry, the organization said.

SPJ is also calling on the state attorney general to open an Open Records Act complaint against Weaver.

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