The state Judicial Qualifications Commission on Friday dismissed ethics complaints against its former chairwoman, Appalachian Circuit Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, often attacking those who had complained of her role in the now-dismissed indictments of a North Georgia publisher and his lawyer.
The judicial watchdog agency said in a report that its newly-formed investigative panel found no evidence to suggest that Weaver had violated the state Code of Judicial Conduct and “no grounds” to discipline her.
The complaints were lodged by Mark Thomason, publisher of The Fannin Focus; Thomason’s lawyer, Hiawassee attorney Russell Stookey; Fannin County Attorney Lynn Doss, and the Georgia Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, according to the report.
The report dismissed the complaints and their authors as “nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to enlist the JQC in their fixation upon harming Judge Weaver. The JQC will have no further part in it.”
On June 24, 2016, Thomason and Stookey were indicted by an Appalachian Circuit grand jury on felony charges stemming from Stookey’s issuance of a civil subpoena and Thomason’s public records request for bank records associated with Weaver’s government operating fund. They were charged with identity fraud and making a false statement to a public official. Weaver was listed on the indictment as the victim and testified before the grand jury, the JQC report said.
A month later, the charges were dismissed at Weaver’s request. At the time, the judge acknowledged she had conducted her own investigation that had likely confused the district attorney’s staff in their attempts “to objectively investigate the case.” A month later, Weaver resigned from the JQC.
On Friday, Weaver’s attorney Robert Ingram, himself a former JQC chairman, said Weaver had been “unfairly vilified by political enemies based upon the unfounded, and now disproven allegations from a so-called ‘journalist’ who has hurled many false allegations at her and others.”
Weaver, he added, “has demonstrated significant restraint and professionalism over the past two years as she fully cooperated with the FBI and the JQC as these baseless allegations were investigated.” The FBI, he said, also found no wrongdoing by the judge.
Ingram also criticized the news media. The Society for Professional Journalists, the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, the Atlanta Press Club, the Georgia Press Association and the Georgia Association of Broadcasters last year jointly called for dismissal of the criminal charges against Thomason and Stookey, challenging whether they were warranted or even legal. (The Daily Report is a member of the Georgia Press Association.)
“When journalists blindly circle the wagons around one of their own who is pursuing a baseless personal vendetta,” Ingram said. “Neither the First Amendment nor the Freedom of Press are advanced.”
Thomason was stunned by the JQC’s decision. “I don’t even know if I can express it in words,” he said, calling it “utterly disgusting.”
“The JQC’s response seems to be more personal than any complaint that was ever filed,” he continued. “It appears the JQC is attempting to further uphold Judge Weaver’s theory of a campaign against her.”
Thompson also said that no one from the JQC ever interviewed him, Stookey or their attorneys before dismissing their complaints.
Holding that the complaints against Weaver were based on “a personal dislike” of the judge, the JQC cited public statements by Stookey to illustrate his attacks on Weaver. At one point, he said he was “spreading wild stories which are not true” about Weaver, the report said. And on Facebook, he said, if he were able to right the alleged wrongs of Weaver her allies, “We would have bodies hanging from the street lights now”—a comment the JQC said caused members “grave concern.”
The JQC also said Thomason had made “false statements” in a public records request for Weaver’s county bank account records in claiming that some checks had been cashed illegally—one of the criminal charges that was dismissed. The report also said that District Attorney Alison Sosebee had told the panel that Weaver had not influenced her to seek the indictment.
Before she became DA, Sosebee was a law clerk to Weaver and worked as an attorney in the law office of Weaver’s husband.
The JQC also criticized news organizations that rallied to Thomason’s defense, claiming they “attempted to portray Judge Weaver as mounting some kind of attack on the freedom of the press.’
“From the JQC’s perspective, nothing could be further from the truth,” the report said. “Calling oneself a ‘journalist’ and ‘reporter’ should not be a cover for pursuing personal vendettas.”
“Needlessly or maliciously attacking a sitting judge in print without any factual or legal basis perverts and undermines the fair administration of justice and public trust in its judiciary,” the panel concluded. “It is just as much the JQC’s responsibility to ensure that integrity is maintained by supporting a judge who has been falsely accused as it is to sanction a judge.”