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Mingo prosecutor target of disciplinary investigation

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel is investigating Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks, its chief attorney confirmed Wednesday.

Rachael Cipoletti wouldn't say why he's being investigated, but Sparks said Thursday it's because of what Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury's federal indictment claims.

Thornsbury was arrested earlier this month after federal authorities charged him with conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of his former secretary's husband, Robert Woodruff.

According to the indictment, Sparks knew at least some of what Thornsbury was allegedly plotting.

Attorneys are required to report judicial misconduct, according to the State Bar's rules of professional conduct for lawyers. But Sparks said he hopes the disciplinary counsel will sympathize with his situation and consider that he has cooperated with federal prosecutors.

Sparks said he had enough information to know that what Thornsbury was allegedly doing was wrong, but wasn't sure if the evidence he had was enough to report Thornsbury. If the charges didn't stick, he would still have to appear before the judge, Sparks said. 

"I believed he was having an affair. I believed that despite the lack of evidence. He was a very vindictive person - and I had been the recipient of his vindictiveness before," the Mingo prosecutor said.

"Perhaps it was an error that I didn't report it, but I didn't think I could prove it. I would hope that they will take into consideration the unique circumstances of my situation and any other member of the Mingo County Bar. I'm not the only member of the Mingo County Bar that was aware of his misconduct."

Thornsbury allegedly had a brief affair with his secretary, and tried to retaliate against her husband after she ended the relationship. Federal prosecutors say the judge put his business partner in charge of a county grand jury as foreman in 2009, plotted to plant drugs on Woodruff and tried to get the man sent to jail.

The judge, who was suspended by the Supreme Court without pay after his arrest, pleaded not guilty to the charges last week. An October trial date is scheduled.

Sparks said he started talking to federal investigators earlier this year to tell them what he knew. "By then it was no secret that there was an investigation," he said.

According to federal prosecutors, Thornsbury got State Police Trooper Brandon Moore to file a criminal complaint against Robert Woodruff, accusing him of stealing scrap metal from his employer -- even though the judge and the trooper knew Woodruff was allowed to take the scraps. (Moore has been placed on paid administrative leave by the State Police until an internal investigation is complete.)

The indictment states that when Robert Woodruff was arrested, "Prosecutor Sparks knew and had reason to know that Judge Thornsbury had been in a romantic relationship with [Kim Woodruff] and knew that Judge Thornsbury exerted great influence over Tpr. Moore in the performance of Tpr. Moore's official duties."

According to the indictment, Sparks recused himself from the case against Robert Woodruff because he "recognized that the criminal charges against [Woodruff] were improper ..."

Sparks' recusal would have led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, which might have led to Thornsbury's scheme being discovered, prosecutors say.

According to the indictment, in January 2009 when Thornsbury allegedly chose Jarrod Fletcher, Mingo County's director of homeland security and emergency management, to be the foreman of a new grand jury, Sparks "declined to participate in Thornsbury's plan."

With Fletcher in charge of the grand jury, Thornsbury was allegedly able to sway the jury's authority and use it to victimize Robert Woodruff. Thornsbury created, and Fletcher signed, a set of subpoenas ordering Woodruff's employer and various other local companies to surrender private documents about him, according to the indictment.

Last year, Robert Woodruff was involved in an altercation with two men at a convenience store. One of the men swung at Woodruff and the other pulled a gun, according to the indictment. The two men were arrested and charged with assault. But about a month later, the charges against those two men were dismissed, and, instead, Woodruff was charged with assault and battery.

"Judge Thornsbury directed [his friend] to instruct Prosecutor Sparks that [Woodruff] should receive a sentence of six months' confinement in the case then pending against him," the indictment states.

According to federal prosecutors, the judge's friend told Sparks and an assistant prosecutor in the county about Thornsbury's alleged orders.

A prosecutor in Sparks' office offered Woodruff the deal of six months, which he refused, the indictment states. And on the eve of the trial, Sparks dismissed the charge, stating, "After careful review of the video evidence, further prosecution of the charges would not be consistent with the public interest in the fair administration of justice."

This isn't the first time Sparks has been investigated by the disciplinary counsel.

In 2007, Sparks was admonished by the counsel for allowing subpoenas for the financial records of a county commissioner to be issued by his office without his approval.

Halcy Hatfield, a former Mingo commissioner who lost his 2006 re-election bid, filed the complaint. Hatfield said issuing the subpoenas affected his campaign, causing his defeat.

In 2005, Sparks and then-Mingo County Sheriff Lonnie Hannah began investigating how federal flood recovery money was spent following the devastating floods of 2004. Hatfield's name came up during the investigation and Hannah obtained subpoenas for Hatfield's financial records through Sparks' office. Sparks said he stopped the subpoenas before any information was provided to the sheriff.

In admonishing Sparks, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel cautioned him to not allow any office employee to issue subpoenas.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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