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Looking the other way perpetuates criminal politics

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Former Mingo County Prosecutor Michael Sparks has been sentenced to 12 months in prison for his role in a political scheme that has dominated headlines for nearly a year and shined a bright light on one part of the state’s tangled web of public corruption.

Sparks pleaded guilty last year on charges that he deprived sign maker George White of his constitutional rights.

This case is sad and distressing for many reasons, but what may be the most painful fact is that Sparks could have and should have stood up for justice and what’s right. No doubt the pressure on him to comply with this scheme was heavy. It’s clear some of the folks he was in cahoots with were the worst kind of bullies, but Sparks’ oath of office was to uphold the law, not to look the other way while the good ol’ boys doled out twisted, backwoods justice. Sparks will have quite a bit of time over the next year to think about how he could have raised a voice; how he could have simply said “no.”

Sparks argued his role in the “Team Mingo” organization (now described by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as “criminal” rather than “political” as it had in previous news releases) was “passive.” Sparks argued that somehow only acquiescing to a crime should have saved him from the federal penitentiary. Thankfully, U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston did not buy that and neither do we. Sparks could have exposed this injustice, yet he did nothing.

“You had an obligation to treat George White in a fair and just manner,” Johnston told Sparks during the July 7 hearing. “Instead of justice you gave him injustice.”

That is a powerful statement and one that will haunt Sparks for years to come.

Sparks also has been implicated in a larger scheme to throw off an investigation into accusations of drug activity of the late Sheriff Eugene Crum involving disgraced former Mingo judge Michael Thornsbury and former County Commissioner Dave Baisden. Our state has a disgraceful history of political corruption, but even the most cynical observers have been taken aback by the shenanigans perpetrated by “Team Mingo.” Bending the rules is bad enough, but these men mocked the law and insulted the people.

Mingo County deserves better than this. Its residents have been forced to live under an unfair and underhanded system. It would be naive to think this doesn’t happen elsewhere, but, hopefully, the bad guys have been put on notice. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team are stepping up and doing something that should have been done years ago. The message is clear — either shape up and put the people first, or face the consequences.