CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An old-time Gazette editor once said West Virginia displays the worst facets of a colony: Out-of-state owners bleed away mineral wealth, then two-bit local politicians scuffle for what's left behind.
This sad pattern has been repeated in southern coal counties for generations. And now it seems visible again in new federal indictments alleging a cesspool of political corruption in Mingo County.
Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury didn't grab illicit money, according to an indictment, but he used the power of his office like a grubby despot, trying to frame the husband of his ex-lover. The judge asked a friend to plant drugs in the husband's car, and asked a state trooper to bring spurious stolen metal charges against him.
Unfortunately, the officer, Brandon Moore, the state's 2010 Trooper of the Year, complied, federal agents allege. Moore has been suspended, pending a State Police investigation.
The judge also improperly appointed his business partner, a low-level county officer, as a grand jury foreman in an attempt to destroy his ex-lover's husband, the indictment says.
Judge Thornsbury is to be arraigned this morning before a U.S. magistrate.
Another indictment revealed simultaneously accuses County Commissioner David Baisden of trying to extort a tire bargain, and a coal personnel contractor is accused of withdrawing money from the Bank of Mingo in small segments to avoid IRS disclosure rules.
Sordid sagas like this have been replayed for decades in counties like Mingo, Logan, Lincoln, etc. A never-ending parade of courthouse politicos entered prison. Usually, scandals involve vote-stealing to keep the politicos in power. Some school systems were turned into political patronage machines. In the past, down-home West Virginia corruption drew national ridicule -- for instance, when a coal county reported more votes than it had residents. A Charleston news reporter coined the phrase, "casting more votes than a Lincoln County cemetery."
Local county prosecutors -- many of them elected by scummy factional machines involved in wrongdoing -- rarely crack down on courthouse sleaze. With few exceptions, only FBI agents and federal prosecutors have been able to break up county-level corruption. Or state-level, considering that U.S. officers sent former Gov. Wally Barron, former Gov. Arch Moore and numerous other Statehouse figures to prison.
Hurrah for the feds, including current U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. West Virginians should be grateful that U.S. watchdogs are working to keep the Mountain State clean.