Let’s Be Real: Freedom Isn’t Free

By Jason Banks

Editor

Last week was easily the busiest week of my life here as editor at the Fannin Focus. As you can imagine, the phones were ringing off the hook, emails were pouring in, and our facebook message inbox was so full I couldn’t keep a full charge on my cell phone or tablet while trying to keep up.

“Keep up the good fight,” one message read. “We’re behind you,” said another. And the trend continued throughout the week. I’ll be honest, I am too lazy to count exactly how many messages or emails we received here, and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It was definitely more than 100, and they came from all types of supporters. Young and old, men and women, local citizens and professional journalists; all had one thing in common: they support the First Amendment and feel like it has been violated. Dismay would be the most accurate term to summarize the reactions and feedback from followers of this story.

In a press release last week, the Society of Professional Journalists condemned the actions of Judge Brenda Weaver. “We cannot find enough words to condemn this outrageous conduct by an elected official toward someone exercising his rights under the Open Records Act. We urge a swift, forceful response so there is no doubt where our rights begin and a judge’s authority ends.”

If you’ve been living under a rock, please allow me to catch you up. On Friday, June 24, at approximately 5:45pm, the Fannin County Sheriff’s department took Fannin Focus Publisher Mark Thomason into custody. The deputies, led by Sheriff Dane Kirby, were lawfully enforcing three felony indictments for Thomason (and his attorney Russell Stookey), all related to requests issued under the Open Records Act.

By definition, The Georgia Open Records Act governs which government records are to be open for public inspection. In this case, the requests were made to county commissioners for Pickens, Gilmer and Fannin County, as well as Stearns Bank, for copies of checks that would prove without a shadow of a doubt that Judge Brenda Weaver paid legal fees for Court Reporter Rhonda Stubblefield (a subcontractor). You see, Stubblefield was suing Thomason and Stookey for the legal fees, supposedly to reimburse the county for the money spent to cover her bill.

Thomason had initially requested copies of the checks from Weaver herself, but on February 5, 2016, Weaver responded to Thomason’s request for the copies with a letter that stated, :The Judicial Branch is not subject to the Open Records Act.” She responded to his second request by writing, “The Open Records Act does not apply to the judicial branch.” Of course, that’s her interpretation of the law, which I’m sure will be clarified sooner rather than later.

I know what you’re thinking. Hold up – forget the fact she was avoiding the request – did you just say the county paid the legal bill for someone who doesn’t actually work for the county? According to statement made by Weaver to the press, one could interpret that she felt like Stubblefield had been through so much already, it just didn’t seem fair for the court reporter to have to pay her own legal fees.

Stay with me, I know this is all nuts but the rabbit hole gets deeper, as does the plot.

Thomason and Stookey didn’t want to get stuck with a $16,000 debt for a lawsuit that Stubblefield ultimately DROPPED, so naturally they did what anyone would do; they sought evidence to defend themselves.

In an email from Rita Kirby to Stacy McClure, Judicial Program Coordinator in Judge Weaver’s office, Kirby expressed concern over a letter she had received from Judge Weaver stating that she was going to “authorize attorney fees for Rhonda Stubblefield to be paid from Judge Bradley’s Office Account.” Kirby went on to say that she wasn’t “sure that this is something [they] could go along with since [Stubblefield] is contract labor and not a County employee.”

Editor’s note: Another local media source (99% opinion, 1%news) actually claimed that Thomason and our office had a copy of that letter – sorry buddy – but that’s not true. I know Thomason and Stookey sure would’ve liked to have it, but they didn’t. Anyway… moving along….

You see, as contract labor the county cuts checks for services rendered but after that, the burden of expenses falls back on the contractor. Technically speaking, Stubblefield’s liability insurance policy should cover her court fees, and even if the county were to make an exception and treat her as a regular employee, ACCG Insurance would have covered the court costs and would have appointed an attorney to defend her.

How did we get the email? Through an Open Records Request.

The reality is everyone is afraid of Judge Weaver. I mean let’s be real, the last thing they want to do is kick a rattlesnake, and that’s the perfect metaphor to describe what it feels like when you anger someone with the judicial power and political clout of someone in Weaver’s position.

Kirby concluded her email with this statement: “Can you please pass along my concerns to Judge Weaver and let me know her thoughts… I’m not trying to be difficult I just don’t want this to be something else that comes back to bite the Chairman or the other Commissioner’s in the butt.”

Yes, she said “butt”, so what? It’s funny. And true. Point is, she was doing her job, and a good one I might add. Everything Kirby said was completely kosher, and warranted concern. She even presented it in a way as if to say, hey, I don’t want to bother you, but I don’t think we can do this.

Now I won’t pretend to have the “full story” because I really only have the information placed in front of me by the defendant; but with everything I’ve seen, read and heard, it doesn’t look good.

Thomason and Stookey used Open Records Requests and subpoenas to investigate how payment was made, and while trying to confirm the payment had in fact been paid by Weaver, with Bradley’s office account (public record, btw), rather than by an insurance company or by Stubblefield herself, the responses received in reference to the subpoenas were alarming.

Carol T. Langford wrote: “I am writing in response to the Subpoena for the Production of Evidence (the “Subpoena”) served upon Community & Southern Bank (the “Bank”) in the above referenced matter.” Hey look, she called it “evidence”. The referenced matter was of course the lawsuit for legal fees. Here’s where it gets interesting. Remember what the subpoenas were for – copies of checks to show payment had been made to Stubblefield’s attorneys – the evidence needed to prove that ONE: the attorneys were paid; and TWO: they were paid by someone who technically shouldn’t have been paying them with money that she technically shouldn’t be spending on that.

The email continues: “Based on a review of our records, we have determined that the Bank has no documents that are responsive to the Subpoena.”

Wait… What does that mean? According to Thomason, it raises the question if the account exists in the first place. “When they email us and say they don’t have documents to respond to our subpoena, it raises questions,” Thomason said. Makes sense, I mean, it’s not like he’d request the info just for the fun of it. That’s where the “false statements” comes into play. If you question a judge, you’d better know the answer first. Otherwise you may end up sleeping on a hard mattress and eating unseasoned food at county lockup. At least that’s what it looks like. But hey, he asked for bank info. He needed it for something. So if not to avoid being stuck with a bill that had already been paid, and if not because the bank seemingly didn’t have records to support the requests for the checks, then what for?

Amazingly, the judge, District Attorney B. Allison Sosebee, and a grand jury seem to believe he needed the information for personal use. Let’s be real for a minute: You mean to tell me that they think he was going to steal the office account (PUBLIC TAXPAYER DOLLARS) information from a JUDGE and spend county money like it was his own? The Freedom of the Press Foundation posted their thoughts about this on facebook last week with a repost/share of the AJC’s original report: “WTF?” I’m not going to spell it out for you, but seriously, What the freak is going on here?

Judge Weaver told Rhonda Cook with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned.” Ya think?! Hey I don’t react well when my honesty is questioned, either, it’s not fun. People get defensive. Sometimes we overreact. When someone questions my honesty, I may feel inclined to knock their jaw off their face, but I can’t do that. It’s not right, and it’s against the law. Keep in mind, I’m just a normal guy. I’m not a judge. Judges are held to a higher standard. When we think of a judge, we think of someone who exemplifies everything that a good citizen should aspire to be. In fact, this isn’t just my opinion, it’s included in the Georgia Judicial Code of Conduct:

“Rule 1.2 Promoting Public Confidence in the Judiciary

(A) Judges shall act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary.

(B) An independent and honorable judiciary is indispensable to justice in our society. Judges shall participate in establishing, maintaining, and enforcing high standards of conduct, and shall personally observe such standards of conduct so that the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary may be preserved. The provisions of this Code should be construed and applied to further that objective.

Let’s be real; I don’t have to balance your checkbook to see that something doesn’t add up here, and I’m not the only one baffled by all this.

Hollie Manheimer, executive director of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying, “The Open Records Act is the vehicle by which citizens access governmental information… Retaliation for use of the Open Records Act will inhibit every citizen from using it, and reel us back into the dark ages.”

Andy Cush reported: “Public records requests, sometimes referred to as FOIA requests, are one of the most useful and necessary tools in the arsenal of any reporter who covers the government. The laws in all 50 states and the federal government provide some mechanism for filing them. The implications of sending a reporter to jail for using this perfectly legal reporting technique are pretty scary, and probably don’t need to be spelled out here.” He went on to say, “Weaver told the AJC she was worried that the men would try to use the banking information on the checks as their own. Which is ridiculous on its face, and is exactly the kind of personal information that government officials redact from public documents before giving them over to reporters all the time. Instead of redacting, Weaver had Thomason arrested. It’s hard to imagine that if Thomason is convicted, he won’t eventually win on appeal. But still, scary.”

You can say that again. If people are unable to question government officials, ESPECIALLY when the questions relate to our own defense, what is the point of our U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights? Freedom of the Press is a sensitive subject, as are all of our Constitutional Rights, and when they appear to be infringed, it’s unlikely people are going to stand by idly. And that’s real.

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