Mingo judge agrees to resign, pleads guilty
Michael Thornsbury resigned his position as Mingo County's only circuit judge Wednesday and admitted he conspired with other officials in his county to try and thwart an FBI investigation into the since-murdered Sheriff Eugene Crum.
Thornsbury, 57, admitted guilt in the conspiracy Wednesday during a plea hearing in federal court before U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston. Stephen Jory, Thornsbury's attorney, notified the governor's office earlier in the day that Thornsbury would step down.
"In other words, did you do it?" Johnston asked Thornsbury at one point during his hearing.
"Yes, sir," Thornsbury replied.
Thornsbury provided similarly brief answers during most of the roughly 40-minute hearing. Johnston did most of the talking, describing details of Thornsbury's plea deal and confirming both Thornsbury and the U.S. Attorney's Office agree on the facts of the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby represented the government in Wednesday's hearing. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin watched the proceedings from the back of the courtroom, and said after its completion he was pleased with the outcome.
"A judge swears an oath to uphold the constitution and to abide by the highest standards of integrity," Goodwin said outside the courthouse in Charleston.
"For a judge to (have) violated someone's constitutional rights is really beyond the pale. But to violate someone's rights in order to obstruct a federal investigation, that's really unthinkable."
Thornsbury faced a slew of accusations. Through the plea agreement he admits guilt for his role in the conspiracy, in exchange for the federal government dropping a charge he repeatedly tried to frame the husband of an ex-lover.
The conspiracy involves Crum, Thornsbury, Mingo County Prosecutor Michael Sparks and other officials, according to a federal court filing called an information.
Crum allegedly owed George White, a Mingo County resident who ran a Delbarton-based sign shop, $3,000 for signs he purchased during his 2012 campaign for sheriff. Instead of settling the debt, the newly elected sheriff sent an informant to buy prescription pills from White, according to the information.
After White's arrest, his attorney, Charles "Butch" West, set up a meeting with the FBI. White told the federal investigators he repeatedly provided Crum with pills while Crum worked as a magistrate.
For the first time publicly, Thornsbury admitted Wednesday that Crum talked to him about West advising White to speak with FBI and media about his accusations. Thornsbury responded to a question from Johnston about this part of the conspiracy, one of the few times the details of the case were discussed.
Thornsbury admitted he told someone it was in White's best interest to switch attorneys. The judge advised the switch with the idea that the new attorney would not advise White to speak with the FBI. Thornsbury said he did it "in order to avoid public embarrassment" for Crum, he told Johnston.
The information alleges several officials, including Sparks and Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden, told White's brother about the advised attorney switch. White fired West, hired attorney Ronald Rumora, and received a lighter sentence.
The details of the conspiracy were discussed for about five minutes Wednesday. Johnston devoted the bulk of the hearing to making sure Thornsbury and his attorney, Stephen Jory, were on the same page with Ruby and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The deal stipulates Thornsbury can never again hold public office and can't appeal any future proceedings to strip him of his law license. He's free on a $10,000 unsecured bond.
While Thornsbury faces a maximum of 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and three years supervised release, continued cooperation could lead to a more lenient sentence.
The U.S. Probation Office will file a report on other information about Thornsbury and the case that could be relevant to sentencing, as requested by Johnston. Sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 13.
By law, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin must appoint a replacement for Thornsbury, spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said.
A judicial vacancy advisory commission convenes and asks for applications, she said. The commission interviews candidates and recommends up to five names to the governor. It's up to Tomblin to interview and appoint the judge, she said.
The Supreme Court suspended Thornsbury in August after he was first indicted. Senior Status Judge John Cummings is filling in.
Although the U.S. attorney said he believes the conspiracy charges are the last criminal proceedings for Thornsbury, the judge's woes aren't over.
Kim and Robert Woodruff are suing Thornsbury and several other officials in connection to earlier allegations.
Kim Woodruff is the former assistant with whom Thornsbury was allegedly romantically involved. Thornsbury reportedly tried to frame her husband, Robert Woodruff.
Mike Callaghan, an attorney for the Woodruffs, attended Wednesday's hearing. He previously said he doesn't think federal prosecutor's decision to drop the charges against Thornsbury involving the Woodruffs will affect his client's civil proceedings.
Rosie Crum, wife of the late sheriff, also attended the hearing. She walked in to the federal courthouse with her attorney, Timothy Koontz, and Kanawha County Prosecutor Mark Plants.
Plants recently took over the prosecution of Tennis Melvin Maynard, the man accused of gunning down Crum in April. Sparks was recently disqualified from the case after asking to be removed.
Plants said his office contacted Rosie Crum and set up the meeting for Wednesday to coincide with Thornsbury's plea hearing. He said he could not comment on the nature of his conversation with her.
"This case is like no other I've dealt with, in that there are so many rumors and conspiracies going around," Plants said.
The U.S. Attorney's Office is still investigating Mingo County.
"I fully anticipate there will be further developments," Goodwin said. "Our investigation is ongoing in Mingo County, and it is very much in full force."
In the course of the investigation, Sparks allegedly told an FBI agent and Goodwin's office he played a part in the conspiracy involving Thornsbury and White.
In a filing with the state Supreme Court, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel said it had received information indicating Sparks had admitted some guilt in the conspiracy. The office, charged with overseeing attorneys in the state, is asking the court to suspend Sparks' law license.
Sparks denied any wrongdoing in a document he filed with the court. A hearing in his case is scheduled for Oct. 16.