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Sparks provides crack in criminal Team Mingo schemes

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Government prosecutors recently described 44-year-old Michael Sparks as the “crack in the wall of silence” that brought down a lawless judge, county commissioner and magistrate — the guy on the inside, privy to the inner workings of a corrupt political organization known as Team Mingo and willing to tell authorities what he knew and when.

“Political corruption cases are notoriously difficult to conduct because the members of a corrupt organization usually stand together in their refusal to cooperate with the authorities, shielding their misconduct with a wall of silence,” prosecutors wrote in a memorandum explaining to the court’s satisfaction why a year in jail on a misdemeanor charge was an appropriate punishment for the former Mingo County prosecutor. “Corrupt officials rarely leave a paper trail sufficient to convict them with documents alone. A successful investigation, therefore, generally requires witnesses from within the corrupt organization who have firsthand knowledge of corrupt acts.

“If investigators can gain the cooperation of a single insider witness ... that witness can often provide testimony and information that leads to the demise of the entire organization. Without that crucial first opening, however, success in political corruption cases is elusive.

“In this case, (Sparks) provided the essential, initial crack in the wall.”

Failure to intervene

Essential or not, his own attorney admits Sparks “neglected to intervene” when Mingo County’s political hierarchy coerced Delbarton signmaker George White into changing lawyers, not because it helped his defense but because it suited their own agenda.

White had been arrested in a drug sting witnesses said was orchestrated by the late Sheriff Eugene Crum whom they said owed the Delbarton businessman several thousand dollars for election signs Crum purchased but refused to pay for. The scheme backfired, however, when White’s attorney encouraged White to tell federal agents Crum’s alleged drug buys. After hearing rumors that White was talking to the FBI, Sparks and others said the sheriff turned to his political cronies — former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury and former commissioner David Baisden — to help Crum figure out a way to keep White from talking to authorities.

Together the team hatched a scheme to convince White not only to jettison the attorney who’d suggested he contact authorities but also to hire an attorney of the group’s choosing, ostensibly for a more favorable sentence. Thornsbury, though, ultimately sentenced White to spend up to 15 years in prison. White served nearly a year behind bars before the scheme unraveled and he gained his freedom.

Thornsbury pleaded guilty to conspiring to deprive White of his constitutional rights and was sentenced to 50 months in federal prison. He is appealing the jail time, however.

Baisden was sentenced to 20 months in prison for using his office to extort tires from a local dealer. Crum was shot and killed while he sat in a cruiser parked in front of the courthouse in an incident officials have said was unrelated to the other schemes. Chief Magistrate Dallas Toler was sentenced to 27 months behind bars for knowingly registering a convicted felon to vote in 2012, arranging for the felon to vote for Team Mingo’s slate of candidates.

And Sparks, who knew about Team Mingo’s plan but didn’t intervene, was sentenced July 7 to a year in jail even though it was his testimony that brought them all down.

Criminal & political organization

“Obviously, what we’ve seen here is an organization — its leader being Thornsbury — being used for very corrupt purposes,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said in an interview days after Sparks’ sentencing. “(They) used it as both a political machine in order to stay in power, but also to facilitate their criminal pursuits, and the two played off one another — as we’ve seen with Thornsbury, with Baisden, with Toler and now with Sparks.”

Goodwin describes Sparks as “the crack that we were able to wiggle through” to break Team Mingo’s grip on Mingo County, sharing his “deep knowledge of (their) activities and the past conduct of its members, providing the government with a blueprint of the organization that made much of the rest of the investigation possible.”

Sparks also provided “important, specific leads, including ... the lead that triggered the investigation of Thornsbury’s lawless persecution of a lover’s husband,” which included the judge arranging for evidence to be planted in the man’s truck and rigging a grand jury. Those charges were dismissed in exchange for Thornsbury pleading guilty to violating White’s rights.

“He was quoted as saying he was the quarterback, but I can’t go that far,” Goodwin said. “No question, when you have an insider in an organization it allows you to go further and faster in addressing the crime problem that they exhibit.”

Sparks’ early cooperation “stands in stark contrast” to his co-conspirators, who refused to cooperate with authorities until after they’d been indicted, “preferring to circle the wagons and protect their power base,” prosecutors said in their sentencing memorandum.

Inexplicably, Sparks did not request immunity in exchange for his help.

“I think he was genuinely hoping we’d forget about him, I imagine,” Goodwin said. “But we could not ignore all that he was involved in, and this is very serious stuff. So he did come in without any promises, but what happened I think ultimately struck a very good balance.”

Removing the leader

Goodwin described the corruption in Mingo as “about as bad as I’ve seen.”

“To see a sitting circuit judge violating multiple individuals’ constitutional rights in the way that he did, and for the reasons he did — personal reasons, political reasons, just out-and-out corrupt reasons — I think that is shocking,” he said, pointing out that 52 months behind bars should allow Thornsbury “ample” time to reflect on his mistakes.

“And whenever you take someone out of commission for that long a period, I don’t think he comes back in and is a player, even,” Goodwin said. “It’s not the organization it once was; certainly, its leader has been dethroned. And if any other individuals are culpable in this, whether they were prosecuted or not, they will certainly be much more careful.”

Goodwin says it’s up to Mingo County residents now to decide if they’ve had enough of corrupt elected officials breaking the law rather than upholding it.

“We can weed the garden, but we’re not the ones that plant it and make it grow,” he said. “The people down there are the ones who can do that and until they do, we’re not going to see (change).

“This is precisely the time when good people need to get involved. Rather than throwing their hands up and saying, ‘things will never change,’ this is the time for them to get engaged, to learn about the candidates standing for office this very year. They need to get involved, make sure there is transparency and accountability on the part of the people they elect to office and make sure those people understand they are accountable to the citizens of Mingo County rather than to political cronies.

“I hope this will signal people (across the state) that corruption in any form is not being tolerated, and people should use these scenarios as opportunities — to have fresh soil in which to plant a garden and to grow it, to move our state forward with leaders who have integrity, that govern with transparency and who are very much accountable to the people of West Virginia.”

Rebuilding reputations

In his sentencing memorandum, Sparks’ attorney, W. Kent Varney, called his client’s failure to protect White’s rights a “mistake in judgment that resulted in the loss of (his) reputation, elected office and law license.”

“(But) the best test of Mr. Sparks character is to examine what he did after he lost his law license and resigned from office,” he continued. “Instead of allowing this to ruin his life and his family, he is attempting to rebuild himself and his reputation.”

Sparks insisted in a May 2013 email to The State Journal that Team Mingo 2012 “was merely a political marketing concept and a separate entity from the Team Mingo 2012 political action committee.” He’d said he was not an officer of the PAC, had not received a campaign contribution from the PAC and had not contributed to the PAC, though he was a candidate on the Team Mingo 2012 ticket. Four months after his email, Sparks pleaded guilty to his role in the White conspiracy.

Sparks reiterated during his sentencing that he thought “Team Mingo” was merely a marketing tactic during the 2012 election. In prosecutors’ memorandum, “Team Mingo” was described as a “criminal organization.”

Since admitting his complicity, Sparks’ attorney said the married father of twin girls has been a model citizen, working as a theater manager and assisting an attorney’s practice while enjoying the support of his wife, children and friends throughout this whole process.

A message Sparks posted to his personal Facebook page hours before his sentencing thanked his friends for their “encouragement, support and prayers.”

“My family and I have been blessed and strengthened by God through you,” he wrote. “Whatever the outcome ... we readily submit to the sovereign will of God. We give ourselves over to God’s holy purposes.”

Though he couldn’t be reached by press time for comment, at his sentencing hearing he told the court that while he did not devise the scheme to deprive White of his counsel of choice, he did nothing to stop it. He also said he’d never tried to protect Team Mingo and that he’d agreed 14 months ago to assist the investigation “at considerable risk to personal and family safety because I considered doing so to be my official and moral duty.”

“I wanted to redeem myself by helping federal investigators in the pursuit of justice for Mingo County,” he said immediately before he was sentenced. “I never demanded immunity or any other inducement in exchange for my assistance; I willingly provided extensive information and candidly answered questions without a lawyer; I maintained frequent contact with federal prosecutors and investigators without a lawyer; I testified before the grand jury without a lawyer or even a subpoena; I proactively solicited the cooperation of several material witnesses; I provided a ‘blueprint’ of the county political and governmental structure that became the foundation for the federal investigation.

“I have been described as the ‘quarterback’ that guided federal investigators to Thornsbury. It has been acknowledged that my contributions to the federal investigation saved the United States considerable time and resources.”

He said his wife and children had “already paid a tremendous price” for his involvement in the conspiracy, referring again to his faith and how he was blessed to have their love and support.

“By God’s grace, beauty has arisen from the ashes. I am now an even better husband and father. I have become more spiritually focused in my brokenness,” he said. “It is my hope that beauty will also arise from the ashes for Mr. White.”

Goodwin, meanwhile, said they’d wrestled with a proper punishment for Sparks, one that would reward his willingness to help bring down a political machine while at the same time holding him accountable for his role in the conspiracy and “recognizing the very real need we have as investigators and prosecutors to gain the cooperation necessary to dismantle criminal organizations like this.”

“We’ve got to send the message, especially to the people of the community, that this is their time. The absolute worst thing they can do is throw up their hands and say things will never change. The only way it’s going to change, the real take-away, is for people in these communities to hold their leaders accountable.”