Small Georgia Paper Fighting |First Amendment Battle

     (CN) – A Georgia newspaper publisher and his attorney were jailed over an Open Records Act request, igniting a furor among First Amendment advocates.
     Mark Thomason, publisher of Fannin County-based newspaper Fannin Focus, and his attorney, Russell Stookey, were charged on June 24 by Fannin County officials with making a false statement in an Open Records Request, identity fraud, and attempted identity fraud.
     The district attorney subsequently requested all charges be dropped, but Senior Judge Richard Winegarden chose not to act on the request immediately, instead scheduling a hearing on the request on Monday afternoon in Pickens County court.
     The Fannin Focus is a local newspaper located in Blue Ridge Georgia covering Fannin, Gilmer, Union, and Polk counties. Stookey is an independent practitioner.
     Thomason and Stookey were exploring, through an Open Records Request, whether county superior court officials misappropriated funds to pay a stenographer’s attorneys’ fees and costs in a libel lawsuit the stenographer filed against Thomason and his newspaper.
     Thomason said his arrest took him by surprise.
     “I didn’t know why I had been arrested,” Thomason told Courthouse News. “I didn’t know what the charges consisted of until I was at the bond hearing the following day.
     “I’ve taken this as a punch at journalists across the nation, basically saying that if we do our job we have to live in fear of being imprisoned,” he said.
     The Georgia First Amendment Foundation, Atlanta Press Club, Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and Georgia Press Association called for the dismissal of all charges against Thomason.
     A written statement from Georgia First Amendment Foundation says “Nothing in the factual background of this dispute raises the slightest suspicion that Thomason and his lawyer sought the bank records for any fraudulent purpose. It is apparent that they were seeking the records to determine how judicial operating funds had been used.”
     The Appalachian Circuit District Attorney, Alison Sosebee, who is in charge of three counties, moved to dismiss all charges against Thomason and his attorney. When Courthouse News contacted the district attorney’s office, a legal assistant, June Stanford, said Sosobee was out of the office.
     The judge didn’t act on the motion immediately, waiting a week before announcing he wanted to hold a hearing to decide whether the indictment will be dropped.
     Courthouse News filed an Open Records Request form with the district attorney’s office seeking any documents relating to the Thomason case.
     Chief of Staff Brian Stanford denied this request via a document sent via email, due to the case being “pending litigation.”
     The charges against Thomason and Stookey stem from a March 2015 hearing during which a Fannin County judge, Roger Bradley, and the assistant district attorney, Morris Martin, allegedly called a black defendant “nigger” in a courtroom.
     Bradley has since “retired,” according to the clerk’s office.
     The district attorney’s office confirmed Morris Martin remains employed by the office.
     Thomason told Courthouse News that several courtroom witnesses reported the racial slur to Fannin Focus. He says this included Michael Early, the Chief of Police of the City of McCaysville, who later testified that Fannin County Investigators Lt. Justin Turner and J.K. Davenport also used the word “nigger” in court. Early did not respond to Courthouse News for comment.
     Turner did not return Courthouse News’ call for comment. When Courthouse News asked Davenport for a comment, he hung up the phone.
     Thomason sought the courtroom transcript through an Open Records Request. Although he got what he wanted, he says it was not until a full month had passed. The transcript cited the judge and assistant D.A saying the n-word, but not the county investigators, Thomason said.
     “They’re the only two investigators in the county, so if their credibility became questionable, then all of their previous cases could be appealed,” Thomason said of the alleged omission.
     Thomason also unsuccessfully attempted to obtain the audio recording of that day’s proceedings. The publisher says that the court stenographer, Rhonda Subblefield, called him and said that she was told to take down some of the people’s racial slurs in the transcript. Thomason subsequently published a story in Fannin Focus on the discrepancy quoting Subblefield.
     Subblefield then sued Thomason and Fannin Focus for libel, seeking for $1.6 million. She eventually dropping the charges, but then sued Thomason for $17,000 in attorney fees.
     “I found out that a local judge on the periphery of the case, Judge Brenda Weaver, authorized Subblefield’s attorney fees be paid with the taxpayers’ money through a government expense account,” Thomason said.
     After Thomason and his attorney, Stookey, filed an Open Records Request with Judge Weaver, the Judge denied it, stating in a letter, “The judicial branch is not subject to the Open Records Request.”
     Weaver did not return Courthouse News’ call for comment.
     Thomason and Stookey found out through the county that Stearns Bank housed the court’s funds. “We logically sought to get a copy of the check that paid the attorney fees. That’s all we wanted,” Stookey told Courthouse News.
     Before the bank had a chance to respond, the judge dismissed the claim for attorney fees on June 13.
     A representative of the firm that represented Stubblefield, Clark and Clark, told Courthouse News they will neither confirm nor deny who paid their attorney fees.
     Thomason and Stookey were then arrested and indicted for identity fraud, attempt to commit identify fraud, and making a false statement in obtaining the bank documents.
     Thomason said, “I would hope that the D.A.’s dismissal was not released in an effort to ease media scrutiny. I do find it odd that neither the D.A. nor the judge can be reached for comment.”
     “If you know anything about Fannin County, justice is an illusion. Fannin County has been known forever as being a corrupt county,” Stookey said. “Everybody works together: the sheriff, the D.A., the courthouse. If they want to get you, they’ll work together until they do. This is a straightforward abuse of power and misappropriation of public funds and a vendetta against Mark Thomason. And it’s an assault on the First Amendment.”
     Thomason’s current attorney, Ashleigh Merchant, who with her husband John is representing Thomason pro-bono, will request that the court expunge his arrest and seal the felony charges against him. The Merchant Law Firm specializes in criminal defense and is based out of Atlanta.
     “This case demonstrated that it is absolutely inappropriate to use criminal charges to silence a critic,” said Gerry Weber, co-chair of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation’s legal committee and a First Amendment lawyer in Atlanta. “The outcome is a lesson for government officials that they can’t retaliate against a journalist or individual simply for asking for information.”

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