Attorney appointed to Mingo election law violations case
WILLIAMSON, W.Va. — A special prosecuting attorney from Kanawha County is expected to soon start working with the Secretary of State's office on its investigation into alleged election law violations in Mingo County.
Mingo County Prosecutor Michael Sparks said Wednesday he recently asked the Mingo Circuit Court to disqualify him from helping the Secretary of State in its investigation.
"The allegations involve statutory clients of mine and also involve an employee in my office so I requested that a special prosecutor be appointed," Sparks said Wednesday from the Mingo County courthouse.
A county prosecuting attorney brings charges on the county's behalf. Officials who work for the county could therefore be clients of the prosecuting attorney.
Kanawha County Assistant Prosecutor Dan Holstein was picked to work with the Secretary of State by the West Virginia Prosecuting Attorneys Institute, said institute Executive Director Philip Morrison.
The agency frequently picks special prosecutors, and was asked to in this case by the Mingo County Circuit Court, Morrison said. He said he spoke with Holstein Wednesday morning about the case.
Before learning about Morrison's decision, Sparks said special prosecutors typically come from surrounding counties. Morrison said he picked Holstein because he works geographically close to the investigators working for the Secretary of State.
The court must approve Holstein's appointment before it's official. Morrison said courts usually agree with the institute's special prosecutor pick, and expected a decision in the next few days.
Holstein did not return a phone message.
Senior Status Judge John Cummings presides over Mingo Circuit Court following Judge Michael Thornsbury's suspension by the state Supreme Court. Thornsbury was suspended after he was recently indicted on federal charges of corrupting the legal process in his alleged repeated attempts to frame the husband of an ex-lover.
Cummings signed an order August 28 disqualifying Sparks from matters outlined in a letter sent to the court earlier in the month by Tim Leach, an attorney with the Secretary of State's office. The order states Sparks told the court the law states he is the attorney for "certain Mingo County elected officials who are under investigation for improper contributions to a political action committee . . ."
The Secretary of State's Office has investigated several elected Democrats inside and outside Mingo County, as well as campaign contributions made to the Team Mingo 2012 political action committee
In 2012, the campaigns of Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, Treasurer John Perdue, state Sen. Art Kirkendoll and state Senate candidate Mark Wills gave a total of $3,700 to the Team Mingo 2012 PAC.
Team Mingo 2012 is not officially affiliated with any local political party. This spring, Secretary of State spokesman Jake Glance told the Daily Mail it's not legal for an active campaign committee to donate money to an unaffiliated PAC.
Less than two weeks after the Daily Mail originally reported the contributions, the PAC returned all of the money to the respective campaigns, according to election filings. Helmick, Perdue and Kirkendoll's campaigns each received $1,000, and the Wills campaign received $700, according to campaign filings.
Mingo County Commissioner Greg "Hootie" Smith is treasurer for the Team Mingo 2012 PAC, and Mingo County Commission President John Mark Hubbard is a part of the same political faction. Both contributed a combined $1,800 to the PAC the day before it returned the money to the four campaigns, according to election filings.
Republican operative Rob Cornelius filed the complaints with the Secretary of State's Office. He alleges Hubbard's campaign in 2010 made an illegal donation in the same vein as the Helmick, Kirkendoll, Perdue and Wills campaigns.
Cornelius has also filed complaints about different alleged violations against House of Delegates Majority Leader Harry Keith White and Delegate Justin Marcum, both Mingo County Democrats. Marcum works as an assistant prosecuting attorney under Sparks.
White and Marcum both recently told the Daily Mail they were cleared by the Secretary of State's Office of any wrong doing.
By law, the Secretary of State's Office cannot comment on any current investigations. The office cannot prosecute anyone: Glance recently told the Daily Mail that the office refers a case to the appropriate prosecuting attorney if it believes there was a criminal act committed.
Leach and Glance qualified that statement Wednesday.
Generally the office works with a prosecuting attorney if it's going to refer a case for prosecuting, but it can also work with the person to ask questions about case particulars. Gauging the prosecutor's temperature on a case can help the Secretary of State's Office determine if they will refer for prosecution or not, Leach and Glance said.
"Sometimes you have to work with the prosecuting attorney to figure out if there has been a violation of election law," Glance said.
"It never hurts to have a second opinion when you're doing an investigation," he said later in the interview.
The details of a Secretary of State's investigation only become public information if there is an indictment connected to the investigation, Leach said.