Judge plans to hold hearing in case of indicted publisher

AP News
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Posted: Jul 15, 2016 11:59 AM

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. (AP) — A judge has taken the unusual step of setting a hearing on a prosecutor's request to drop charges against a north Georgia newspaper publisher and his attorney who were jailed in an open records dispute.

Senior Judge Richard Winegarden on Thursday told lawyers for Fannin Focus publisher Mark Thomason and attorney Russell Stookey that he will hold a hearing Monday before deciding whether to dismiss the indictment, according to the Daily Report (http://bit.ly/29JLatt).

The two were indicted June 24 on charges of identity theft and attempt to commit identity theft stemming from subpoenas they issued. The indictment also accused Thomason of making a false statement in an Open Records Act request.

The charges drew condemnation from journalism organizations and garnered national attention.

The case stems from a legal battle between Thomason and court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield. Thomason was seeking an audio recording of a court proceeding before then-Judge Roger Bradley because he believed the transcript produced by Stubblefield was incomplete.

He tried to use the courts to compel her to release the audio recording and also wrote a story saying the transcript might not be accurate. Stubblefield sued him for libel.

A judge ended up dismissing Thomason's claim, and Stubblefield dropped her counterclaim. But Stubblefield subsequently filed paperwork asking to be reimbursed for attorney's fees, even though she had been paid nearly $16,000 from Bradley's operating account, the newspaper reports.

Weaver said the judges decided to use court money to cover the court reporter's legal expenses since they stemmed from her work for the court.

Sosebee brought the charges at the request of Appalachian Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, who is named as a victim in the indictment, after Weaver learned about subpoenas seeking records for her office's operating account and for the operating account of Bradley, who is no longer on the bench.

Sosebee filed a motion July 7 seeking saying she was seeking to withdraw the charges at Weaver's request.

Ashleigh Merchant, an attorney for Thomason, said she was surprised when Winegarden informed her of the hearing. She told the Daily Report she's never been summoned to a hearing after a prosecutor has asked to drop charges.

Winegarden declined to tell the Daily Report why he decided to call the hearing.

"I don't think I should be talking to anyone about it," Winegarden told the newspaper. "You should find out from someone involved in the case."

Stookey's defense attorney told the newspaper he didn't want to comment. Sosebee didn't immediately respond to a message left on her cellphone Friday.

Thomason and Stookey remain free after they each posted $10,000 in bond. Under the conditions of the bond, Thomason has had to undergo five drug tests in the three weeks since his arrest. He and his newspaper staff also are prohibited from coming within 250 yards of witnesses in the case named in a two-page list.