Judge Responds To Open Records Request By Having Requester Indicted, Arrested


We’ve seen government officials do some pretty questionable things to avoid turning over documents to FOIA requesters. The most common method is just to stick requesters with a bill they can’t pay. Stonewalling is popular, too — so much so that the federal government sends out “Still interested?” notices to people whose requests have been backburnered for years.

More rarely, officials will race requesters to the courthouse, hoping to secure a judgment in their favor stating that they’ve already fully complied with a FOIA request — even when they’ve done nothing but withhold and redact. Stripped of all the legal wrangling, this is basically the government suing individuals for asking for documents, forcing taxpayers to go out-of-pocket if they hope to counter the officials’ assertions.

But one thing we haven’t seen is a government official securing a grand jury indictment against open records requesters… for making open records requests.

A North Georgia newspaper publisher was indicted on a felony charge and jailed overnight last week – for filing an open-records request.

Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason, along with his attorney Russell Stookey, were arrested on Friday and charged with attempted identity fraud and identity fraud. Thomason was also accused of making a false statement in his records request.

The pair had been going after local judge Brenda Weaver and other court staff for some time, tracing back to her predecessor’s (former judge Roger Bradley) use of a racial slur in the courtroom. The slur was attached to a defendant’s name, and this slur was repeated by the district attorney and court deputies. Thomason acquired a copy of a transcript only to find the repeated use of the slur by court deputies had been removed. He asked for the audio recording of the hearing and was rejected.

This led to an article by Thomason in which he noted the missing slurs and presumably questioned the court stenographer’s skills/honesty. The court stenographer sued Thomason for defamation, seeking $1.6 million in damages. The suit was dropped when it became clear Thomason, like many journalists, is judgment-proof — i.e., there’s no way he had anything close to $1.6 million laying around. The case was closed by a judge who determined Thomason had no proof that the transcript was inaccurate.

The court stenographer then filed a motion to recover legal fees, despite the fact that then-Judge Bradley had already cut her a check for $16,000 to reimburse her for her legal costs. That led to the current run of subpoenas and records requests in which Thomason hoped to show a judge that the stenographer had already recovered her legal fees.

Judge Weaver’s response to this lawful dig for pertinent records was to work in concert with the district attorney to bring charges against the pair — claiming ridiculously that “Thomason would use the banking information on those checks for himself.”

Weaver’s accusations — pushed past a grand jury by District Attorney Alison Sosebee — are exactly that: she’s accusing Thomason of seeking to take funds from Weaver’s bank account. According to Count One of the indictment [PDF], Thomason’s subpoena — which sought front/back copies of checks issued from the account — was nothing more than a failed attempt at identity fraud.

…with intent to unlawfully appropriate resources of said victim, contrary to the laws of this State…

The next count is just charge stacking: attempt to commit identity fraud. The third, however, seeks to make the filing of a public records request a criminal act.

…[w]hen the accused requested documents pursuant to the Open Records Act… to Robert P. Jones [Chairman of the Pickens County Board of Commissioners] and specifically requested “the actual cleared checks (front/back) that Pickens County had written to Judge Brenda Weaver and Judge Roger Bradley for Pickens County’s portion of the quarterly operating account expenses for the judges from the years 2013, 2014, and 2015” and further stated “after reviewing only the checks written on behalf of Fannin County for the 2015 year and finding that, according to several banks, some of these checks appear to have not been deposited but cashed illegally,” knowing the same to contain a false and fictitious representation…

In short, Judge Weaver claims the requesters lied on their request… which is apparently against the law… somehow. While the statute does forbid the use of false statements in documents submitted to officials, there’s no indication it was meant to cover allegedly inaccurate assertions made in open records requests. On top of that, the quoted request makes it clear the assertion of illegality was made by “several banks,” not the requesters themselves.

It could be that Judge Weaver is simply trying to shield courtroom employees from what she apparently views as harassing behavior. But the decision to handle the situation with a grand jury indictment, rather than litigating the open records request itself, definitely gives the situation the appearance of a concerted coverup. The subpoenas may be more legally questionable, but the application of this statute to an open records request looks like someone with a keen interest in keeping requested documents out of the hands of the journalist seeking them.

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Comments on “Judge Responds To Open Records Request By Having Requester Indicted, Arrested”

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Anonymous Coward says:

This whole thing stinks

From the way the court is reacting, they clearly are trying to cover up their own indiscretions. You can’t take a normal request and twist it around to be identity theft related without evidence. There is no proof of intent other than the intent of the court and judge to railroad these people. She needs to be removed from anything related to this case and these people, if not from the court all together.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: This whole thing stinks

what i dont get, is WHAT happened to the original courtroom recording of said slurs, and WHY it couldnot be determined if the court reporter censored that or not… wtf, the court reporter ‘lost’ the recording or something ? arent those recordings public property ? (bearing in mind i would NOT be surprised if there is some bullshit situation where a private firm providing these services maintains control / ownership of public records)
secondly, going to such lengths to destroy these reporters, makes me think there is almost CERTAINLY some skullduggery going on…
(the overarching REAL story being the gutting of both local and national reporting/media who DO NOT go after corruption both because of the korporate dominance over the media, as well as the officials using their offices/power to destroy any citizens who have the temerity to hold ‘public servants’ accountable…)

K`Tetch (profile) says:

I first heard of this story last week from some of my friends who are also journalists here in GA. It led to some real horror stories being swapped that’ll be pretty eye-opening to the EFF’s Dave Maass when I do a panel/workshop on the FOIA with him in 2 months time.

I’m actually thinking about driving up to speak to some of the people involved here later this week too. Anyone want to put aside some bail money for me?

jenbecca (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

After being ordered a year protection order and able to leave Jasper, GA in 2013 with my children and move home to Maryland, I could not believe the amount of corruption that goes on in that court system. DFACS had removed my ex from the home when the protection order was given. A friend of mine months after I left sends me pictures of him drinking at a party with the same DFACS worker that removed him who’s boyfriend happen to be his bails-bondman. Georgia having jurisdiction I was not made aware of hearings, bench conferences were happening without my knowledge and orders being changed without me knowing with no hearing. My Ex had gotten 2 years of child support continuances and had no responsibility for our children yet I was ordered to drive to Jasper from Maryland so he could visit with them. Until 2 days ago I have called the Victims Advocate leaving messages for almost 2 years trying to find out about what was going on with my ex’s protection order violations and bond violations with not one phone call returned. When the story broke of my ex’s attorney Mark Miller being jailed I was hoping it would expose all the corruption and the total lack of concern for children and the ‘good ole boy’ mentality that runs the court system. When I finally called 2 days ago and made it known I wanted to speak with someone who could answer my questions I finally got a call back. I was told that the case had been on the calendar several times they were not sure why it wasn’t heard but Judge Weaver filed a recusal in the case in 2014 and it just has never been put on the calendar…. Well that explains alot, My Ex cuts Judge Weavers grass and does work for her Attorney husband at properties they own. The last threatening phone call I got from my ex 2 days before his attorney was arrested he said ‘ I don’t think you want me to drag you back to Jasper where I have pull in the court system” .. Thank you Mark Thomason and Russell Stookey for exposing what really goes on!!!!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Oh no problem with THIS indictment

It’s because citizens are NEVER taught their responsibilities and neither do they care to learn them on their own. Compounded by the fact that judges, lawyers, and prosecutors all lie to the jury and you can see why the judicial system is a joke.

If you even drop any of these words you will be removed from jury duty before any other member. In fact you might get all the other jurors knocked out just because they heard the words or get a case thrown out for retrial.

nullification, fija, informed

Giles Byles (profile) says:

“Thomason acquired a copy of a transcript only to find the repeated use of the slur by court deputies had been removed.  He asked for the audio recording of the hearing and was rejected.”
& boom, there it is.  Assuming there was an audio recording of the hearing extant, that’s the last thing the stenographer wants to have released–a proper record of what really happened & which could be compared to her shitty transcript.  It would reveal how real-time stenographers sit there making hundreds of errors (& omissions) an hour.  Her transcript would be thrown out in favor of one transcribed from the recording, which is how these things should be handled in the first place.  The technology has existed for decades & stenographers were debunked decades ago.
If a proper recording ever existed, I bet it doesn’t any more.  An archiving “glitch” deleted it.


Re: Re:

The part of the story that is being left out is Mark Thomason, Russell Stookey, Judge Christian, JQC, GBI have all received the audio and transcript and it is accurate. So know what you’re talking about. This is all a big show boat for Thomason to have his ten minutes of fame. He lost his case. Go to the Fannin County Clerk’s Office and read the clerk’s file. HE LOST! You should also ask Mark Thomason about his episode a year ago with “Brain Cancer” where he set up a fund me account. It didn’t exist. Also, check into all of the fifas and lawsuits against this great journalist.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Well Judge Bradley and the court officers are also to blame; Thomason wanted to get their conduct on record as an example of their wrong attitudes and unfitness for office. Hey, if you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear, right?

The real issue here is not that people who should have known better said bad words, it’s that the stenographer’s legal fees were paid out of court funds. We should not be paying our BFF’s civil law case fees out of the public purse, that’s what makes the payments illegal.

Now the stenographer says she wants to hit Thomason for the court costs to pay the public purse back for what was taken from it but that’s not the point; she should have had to bear that cost herself. Notice that a visiting judge said there was no reason to request the FOIA in the first place as “there is not enough evidence of misconduct,” or something. The whole district is corrupt. Free the damn recording and let the public decide!

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