ATLANTA – In a story that has shaken the media world, a newspaper publisher and his lawyer were jailed this summer simply for making an open records request.
Mark Thomason, publisher of the Fannin Focus, and his attorney, Russell Stookey, spent a night in jail in late June after they requested copies of checks, written on court bank accounts, for two judges, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. One of those judges, Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, ordered the two men to jail.
“We are shocked that any journalist would be jailed for simply asking a question,” a letter from the Society of Professional Journalists reads.
The two men were charged with identity fraud and attempted identity fraud because they sought the check copies.
Thomason, the publisher of The Fannin Focus newspaper, was investigating rumors that funds in two accounts administered by the Appalachian Judicial Circuit in North Georgia were being misspent. (Fannin is a county in Georgia.)
“Where on earth is the DA coming up with a felony?” former DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan asked The Atlanta Journal Constitution? “Sounds like a (dispute) between a judge and a public gadfly.”
Thomason has apparently been feuding with the courts in Fannin County for some time. He had filed a suit to obtain audio tapes of a court proceeding, arguing that the court records were inaccurate. The court reporter countersued; Thomason’s suit was dismissed, and the court reporter withdrew her suit, according to the AJC. The judge had agreed to use a court account to pay the court reporter’s legal fees of $16,000. Thomason and Stookey had requested to see copies of the checks for $16,000 – leading to their arrest.
Charges were filed because there was “an improper use of a subpoena to obtain a third party’s banking records without proper notice,” Judge Weaver wrote in an email to the AJC. “I do not believe you or anyone else would believe that this is allowable under the First Amendment. If true, that means I could file a bogus lawsuit against anyone and then use the lawsuit as a mechanism to … obtain their bank records, both business and personal. How dangerous would that be in this age of internet and identity fraud?”
The charges against the two men were dropped in July, but the dispute does not appear to be over, even after Weaver resigned as chairwoman of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, which is investigating her action. The FBI also is looking into the court’s spending of money.
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