Mingo prosecutor Sparks, magistrate Toler charged
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks in connection with the same scheme the county's circuit judge pleaded guilty to last week.
Also Wednesday, the county's chief magistrate, Dallas "Big Dal" Toler, was charged with one count of voter-registration fraud in a separate case.
Toler resigned before his charge was announced. Sparks said he will resign Thursday. His lawyer said Sparks also will surrender his law license.
Prosecutors in U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin's office filed the charges against the men in the form of an information, which cannot be filed without a defendant's consent and usually means a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. Goodwin said each man has agreed to plead guilty.
Sparks, who has been Mingo County's prosecutor since 2005, is charged with one count of deprivation of rights under the color of law. He faces a maximum of one year in prison.
"Regrettably, I made a mistake in judgment and now accept the consequences," Sparks said in an emailed statement.
Sparks deprived convicted drug dealer George White of his rights while trying to cover up allegations that Mingo County's former sheriff, Eugene Crum, illegally received prescription painkillers from White, according to the information filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steve Ruby and Haley Bunn.
White owned a sign shop in Delbarton and Crum allegedly owed him about $3,000 for election campaign materials. Instead of paying White, Crum had him arrested for selling drugs, prosecutors say.
White, with the help of lawyer Charles "Butch" West, then began giving information to federal agents about giving prescription pain medication to Crum, according to prosecutors.
When Crum found out, he allegedly approached other officials -- including Sparks and former county commissioner David Baisden -- who devised a scheme to keep White quiet. Federal prosecutors say Sparks and others told White's brother that, if White switched lawyers and stopped talking to federal investigators, he would get a lighter sentence.
Sparks previously denied the allegations, when charges were filed against him by the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel. The counsel sought suspension of Sparks' law license after details of the conspiracy were made public in a federal charge against former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury.
Thornsbury was told about the scheme and agreed with it, the former judge admitted at his plea hearing.
Thornsbury pleaded guilty to a felony -- conspiring to violate White's constitutional rights -- and resigned as judge last week. Sparks' charge is a misdemeanor, said his attorney, Kent Varney of Pikeville, Ky.
According to Wednesday's charge against Sparks, White entered into a plea agreement offered by Sparks that dropped three of five charges and would allow his sentences to run at the same time, according to prosecutors. Also, Sparks reduced White's bail amount from $20,000 to $10,000, the charge states.
"Sparks did these acts knowing that a more favorable plea agreement for [White] was a necessary part of the scheme to coerce [White] info firing [his attorney] in order to protect the sheriff. Because Sparks was the county's prosecuting attorney, his cooperation in this regard was necessary to the scheme's success," prosecutors wrote.
Thornsbury sentenced White to 1 to 15 years in jail after he pleaded guilty to drug charges earlier this year. White was transferred earlier this week from the Southwestern Regional Jail to Huttonsville Correctional Center.
"My attempt to prevent potential injury to the reputation and drug enforcement efforts of the late Sheriff Eugene Crum was unjustifiable. The end should never justify the means in criminal justice," Sparks said in his statement Wednesday.
Baisden pleaded guilty to a separate federal charge last week and resigned as county commissioner. Crum was shot to death in his police cruiser in Williamson in April.
"Obviously, this is two more significant developments in our ongoing investigation in Mingo County," Goodwin said. "Both individuals have agreed to plead guilty and are cooperating with that investigation."
County commissioners will also have to replace Sparks, according to Philip Morrison, executive director of the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute. Sparks said in his statement that his resignation will take effect at 11:59 p.m. Thursday.
"Our hard work and dedication to the cause of justice during my tenure as Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney resulted in an unprecedented number of felony convictions and 100 percent trial conviction rate in murder and drug cases," Sparks said in his statement. "Our commitment to children was exemplified by the prosecution of an unparalleled number of child abuse and neglect cases. Recently our voluntary substantial assistance in the federal investigation was instrumental in bringing Michael Thornsbury to justice."
Before Wednesday, Sparks had repeatedly denied any wrongdoing alleged by federal prosecutors.
In August, Sparks was mentioned in an indictment that charged Thornsbury with conspiring to violate the constitutional rights of his former secretary's husband by trying to land him in jail. That charge against Thornsbury -- which said that Sparks knew at least some of what Thornsbury was allegedly plotting -- will be dropped if a judge accepts Thornsbury's plea agreement.
Sparks has said before that he never took part in Thornsbury's alleged scheme against Robert Woodruff, the ex-secretary's husband, and blamed an "intimidating environment" for not reporting the judge.
Federal prosecutors gave information to state ODC investigators calling Sparks a liar after he continued to deny the alleged role outlined first in Thornsbury's information.
Sparks obtained his law degree from West Virginia University. From 2002 through 2004, he was an assistant prosecutor in Mingo. He was elected prosecuting attorney in 2005.
"Michael is a real good guy. Anybody who has met him knows he is a really nice person," Varney said. "He made some mistakes and, as a result of those mistakes, we had to make a plea agreement with the federal government."Magistrate charged with voter fraud
Toler, Mingo County's chief magistrate, resigned hours before federal prosecutors filed the voter-registration fraud charge against him, according to West Virginia Supreme Court administrator Steve Canterbury.
According to the charge, Toler illegally submitted a voter registration application in the name of a convicted felon who was on probation at the time. Prosecutors did not name the felon.
In January 2012, Toler was appointed as a magistrate -- by Thornsbury -- to take over the seat vacated by Crum, who left the position to run for sheriff. Toler won the election and took office for what was supposed to be a full term in January.
Canterbury said Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin would appoint a senior-status magistrate to temporarily cover the vacant position.
Normally, the circuit judge would appoint Toler's replacement, but Senior Status Cabell Circuit Judge John Cummings is filling in for Thornsbury, and Canterbury said it isn't clear if Cummings can make that decision. An opinion is being drawn up on who is to appoint a permanent replacement, Canterbury said.
Toler didn't want to make a statement, his wife told the Gazette on Wednesday.
However, he told the Williamson Daily News before the charge against him was filed that he has "served the public to the best of my ability and have always prided myself in treating each and every defendant who appeared before me in a fair and just manner. No matter what the situation was or what crime was committed, they deserved no less than that.
"I hope that throughout this investigation and whatever the outcome may be, that you will remember a job well done by myself and my assistant," Toler told the newspaper.
On his Facebook page Thursday morning, Toler wrote, "I have decided they are things in our lives that is just not fair." (sic) Ninety-two people "liked" the comment.
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.