- Associated Press - Monday, July 7, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Former Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks has been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty in a federal corruption case.

Judge Thomas E. Johnston handed down the sentence Monday in U.S. District Court in Charleston. In addition to his time behind bars, Sparks was sentenced to a year of supervised release and a $500 fine.

Monday’s decision came about a month after Johnston sentenced former Mingo County Judge Michael Thornsbury to 50 months in prison on corruption charges in the same scheme. Johnston likened Thornsbury’s abuse of power to what could be expected from a “third-world dictator.”

Sparks pleaded guilty in 2013 to depriving campaign sign maker George White of his constitutional rights.

A plea agreement with federal prosecutors let Sparks plead guilty to the misdemeanor charges. Sparks’ attorney had asked Johnston for an alternative sentence like community service.

Justifying the plea deal in a court memorandum, federal prosecutors called Sparks an “invaluable, insider witness who was the first member of his corrupt organization to cooperate with the government.”

“In this case, the Defendant provided the essential, initial crack in the wall,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven R. Ruby wrote in the court document Thursday.

Johnston said the arguments for a plea agreement were valid. But he said he would’ve likely given Sparks a stiffer sentence if he could have.

“This sentence needs to repeat, repeat, the message that corruption must come to an end in Mingo County and in southern West Virginia,” Johnston said Monday.

Prosecutors say Sparks participated in a scheme to protect the late Sheriff Eugene Crum from accusations that the sheriff bought prescription painkillers from White.

Prosecutors said Crum had sought the help of Thornsbury — Mingo’s lone circuit judge at the time — Sparks and a former county commissioner in 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, prosecutors say.

White, who spoke at the sentencings for both Thornsbury and Sparks, said he spent 240 days he spent in jail and prison.

The former county commissioner, David Baisden, was not charged in the Crum case. He 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.

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