Judge pleads guilty to federal charges
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Michael Thornsbury began Wednesday as Mingo County's only circuit judge. He ended it as an admitted felon.
Thornsbury pleaded guilty in federal court to depriving a drug dealer of his constitutional rights in an attempt to protect the county's sheriff from a federal investigation.
Thornsbury, 57, of Williamson, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine when U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentences him at 2 p.m. on Jan. 13. He remains free on $10,000 bail.
Hours before his guilty plea, Thornsbury, who had served as the county's only circuit judge since 1997, notified the Governor's Office of his resignation -- as agreed upon in the plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
In federal court Wednesday, Thornsbury admitted his part in a conspiracy to prevent George White from talking to FBI agents. Prosecutors in U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office said White was telling federal agents about providing the late Mingo County sheriff, Eugene Crum, with illegal prescription drugs.
Thornsbury said he advised Crum that it would be in White's best interest to switch attorneys. He said Crum had told him White's attorney was making false accusations to the FBI and news media about him.
"In order to avoid public embarrassment of my friend [Crum]," Thornsbury said, he participated in the plan to keep White quiet.
According to the federal charge against Thornsbury, Crum -- described in the charge as "a close associate and political ally" of Thornsbury -- bought several thousand dollars worth of signs and other promotional campaign items on credit from White's sign shop in Delbarton.
After Crum was elected sheriff, instead of paying his $3,000 bill, he allegedly sent an undercover police officer to buy oxycodone tablets from White.
After White's arrest, federal investigators approached his lawyer, former Williamson mayor Charles "Butch" West, and asked to talk to White about allegations that he provided drugs to Crum. White told FBI agents that, on "multiple occasions prior to his arrest, he unlawfully provided Crum with prescription narcotic pills at Crum's request," prosecutors said.
Federal prosecutors said Crum soon learned what White had told FBI agents and that a meeting was arranged with White's brother. Prosecutors said Mingo Commissioner David Baisden, Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks and Crum devised a scheme to get White to switch attorneys, in exchange for a lighter sentence from Thornsbury.
Thornsbury sentenced White to 1 to 15 years but had scheduled a hearing to reconsider White's sentence for last month. That hearing was postponed.
If the federal judge approves Thornsbury's plea agreement, prosecutors will dismiss charges that Thornsbury violated the constitutional rights of his former secretary's husband by trying to land him in jail on trumped-up charges.
Federal prosecutors also won't go after Thornsbury "for conduct comparable in nature and scope to conduct known to the United States at the time of the execution of this plea agreement," the agreement states. "Further, Mr. Thornsbury agrees to be named as an unindicted co-conspirator and unindicted aider and abettor, as appropriate, in subsequent indictments or informations."
Also as part of the plea deal, Thornsbury has agreed not to contest proceedings to take away his law license, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. Thornsbury also agreed to wait at least five years before trying to get his license back, and to never again hold public office or play an active role in any political campaign.
During Wednesday's hearing, Thornsbury was often quick to answer Johnston's questions, and also made it clear that he understood the proceedings.
"I appreciate that, but we're going to continue," Johnston said after Thornsbury listed several things about sentencing guidelines that he said he understood without being asked.
The judge eventually told Thornsbury, "I will ask you to wait and let me finish my question before you respond."
Goodwin said after the hearing that judges are expected to abide by the highest standards of integrity.
"For a judge to violate someone's constitutional rights is really beyond the pale," Goodwin said, "but to violate someone's rights in order to obstruct a federal investigation -- that's really unthinkable. . . . Justice will be served."
Rosie Crum, the widow of the late Mingo sheriff, and her attorney, Tim Koontz, were in the courtroom Wednesday with Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants and two of his assistants. Plants' office is prosecuting Tennis Maynard, who is charged with shooting Eugene Crum to death. Plants was assigned to handle the case when Mingo prosecutor Sparks recused himself from the case.
Crum told the Gazette after her husband was implicated in the charges against Thornsbury that the ex-judge and others are trying to deflect guilt from themselves onto a dead man who can't speak for himself.
Crum and her lawyer met with federal prosecutors after Thornsbury's hearing on Wednesday. Goodwin said they asked for the meeting.
Baisden pleaded guilty to an unrelated charge Tuesday. He will be sentenced Jan. 14 for demanding that Appalachian Tire sell him tires at a rate only available for government vehicles. He must step down before his sentencing, according to a plea agreement.
Sparks faces a hearing on Oct. 16 before the West Virginia Supreme Court on whether his law license will be suspended or not.
In the charge to be dropped as a result of Thornsbury's plea deal, prosecutors say the ex-judge put his business partner in charge of a county grand jury as foreman, plotted to plant drugs on Robert Woodruff and tried to get him sent to jail after Kim Woodruff, the judge's secretary at the time, broke off an affair with him.
The Woodruffs filed lawsuits earlier this week against Thornsbury and others, based on those allegations.
In another case, private investigator Don Stevens has filed notice that he intends to sue Thornsbury and others for allegedly cooking up charges against him because they believed he was investigating Thornsbury.
As he has before, Goodwin said Wednesday the investigation into Mingo County corruption continues.
"I fully anticipate there will be further developments," he said outside the courthouse.
Reach Kate White at email@example.com or 304-348-1723.