- Associated Press - Sunday, April 20, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - The upcoming sentencings of two key former Mingo County public officials are an opportunity for a southern West Virginia coal mining community shaken by corruption to start bouncing back, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said.

“Far too often, I think, the natural tendency is to throw up your hands and just say it’s never going to change,” Goodwin said.

Yet the federal prosecutor isn’t ready to celebrate the end of a case that’s been part of a string of high-profile investigations since taking office four years ago.

“I don’t ever relish people going to prison,” Goodwin said. “It’s a necessary punishment for what they’ve done.”

Former Mingo prosecutor Michael Sparks is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday in federal court in Charleston. He faces up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Federal prosecutors are seeking the maximum penalty. Former Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury is scheduled to be sentenced June 9. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Thornsbury’s participation was said to be pivotal in a scheme to protect the late Sheriff Eugene Crum from accusations of illegal drug use. Crum was killed in an unrelated shooting in April 2013.

Crum, who was also a longtime magistrate, was elected in 2012 on a campaign to clean up a pervasive drug problem. According to court documents, while campaigning he bought signs and other materials from a man named George White and still owed him $3,000 when Crum took office in January 2013.

Federal prosecutors say Crum had White arrested in early 2013 instead of paying the money he owed. White then went to federal agents and told them he provided Crum with pills.

Seeking to avoid trouble with federal agents, Crum sought the help of Thornsbury, Sparks and former county Commissioner David Baisden. The three cooked up a scheme to try to keep White from talking to the FBI about Crum. White was told that if he switched lawyers and pleaded guilty to drug charges, he would receive a lighter sentence from Thornsbury.

But the scheme faltered and ended with Sparks pleading guilty to depriving White of his constitutional rights and Thornsbury pleading guilty to conspiring to deprive White of his rights.

Charges against White were dismissed in February.

White’s attorney, David Barney, said the case “rocks the foundation of what our government’s about.”

The process of deciding who will fill the remainder of the terms of Thornsbury, Sparks, Baisden and Crum starts when Mingo County residents head to the polls for the May 13 primary election.

Baisden was not charged in the Crum case but was sentenced in an unrelated case earlier this year for trying to get a tire store to sell him tires for his personal use at a government contract rate.

Goodwin said diligent teamwork from state and local authorities in unearthing evidence for a successful prosecution was critical.

“That’s always the challenge in these sorts of cases,” Goodwin said. “People will come forward and say ‘everybody knows what’s going on down here, why can’t you do something about it?’ But getting from everybody knows it to a provable federal case is a pretty wide gulf.”

Goodwin’s suggestion that Mingo County residents start focusing on shaping their future was echoed by Charlie Blackburn, owner of the Clothes Line Dry Cleaners in Williamson. Blackburn has counted Sparks, Thornsbury, and Baisden among his customers.

“Yeah, it’s a chance for a new start,” Blackburn said. “We’ve just about cleaned house. The ones that are left are pretty safe, are probably not involved in anything.”

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