Pursuing justice in Mingo County - WTRF 7 News Sports Weather - Wheeling Steubenville

Pursuing justice in Mingo County

Posted: Updated:

Michael Sparks, the former Mingo County prosecutor whose testimony toppled corrupt politicians charged with using public office for private gain, said the reason he didn’t request immunity from prosecution was simple enough.

He didn’t think he needed it.

Sparks, 44, was sentenced July 7 to a year in prison because he didn’t stop former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury and former county commissioner David Baisden from coercing a drug defendant into changing attorneys in hopes he wouldn’t tell federal agents that former Mingo County sheriff Eugene Crum had purchased prescription painkillers from him or committed election law violations.

Crum, the conspirators said, had owed Delbarton sign maker George White $3,000 for election signs he purchased. Rather than pay up, they said Crum arranged to have a confidential informant buy prescription painkillers from White and then had White arrested.

What Crum wasn’t counting on was that White’s original attorney, Charles West, would encourage White to try to cut a deal with the feds. When Crum found out White was talking to the FBI, the conspirators said Crum turned to his political cronies, the now-infamous Team Mingo, for help. Together the men hatched a plan to convince White things would go better for him if he fired the attorney he’d picked and hired one of their choosing.

But after the change of attorney, instead of a sweetheart deal, White found himself sentenced to up to 15 years in prison. White spent the better part of a year behind bars before the Team Mingo plan unraveled, White’s conviction was vacated and the charges against him dismissed. Thornsbury eventually was sentenced to 50 months in prison after admitting he conspired to deprive White of his constitutional rights. Baisden was sentenced to 20 months in prison after admitting he extorted tires from a local dealer and yet another member of the Team Mingo hierarchy, former chief magistrate Dallas Toler, was sentenced to 27 months in prison after admitting to voter registration fraud.

Crum, said to have started the dominos tumbling by refusing to pay for his campaign signs, was murdered in April 2013 as he sat in his parked cruiser. Investigators early on proclaimed the shooting was unrelated to the criminal conspiracy in White’s case, and nothing has since been said to contradict that.

Coming Forward

Thornsbury, Baisden and Toler initially declined to cooperate with investigators and thus received stiff sentences when they finally did admit complicity.

Because he cooperated fully with investigators, Sparks was sentenced for a lesser misdemeanor. Before charging him, though, prosecutors said they gave great thought not just to whether they should charge Sparks with a crime, but also, if they did, what an appropriate penalty would be in light of the “substantial assistance” he’d provided them during the course of the investigation. In their sentencing memorandum, prosecutors acknowledged the enormity of his contributions to their case but said they ultimately settled on a misdemeanor deprivation of rights charge because, despite his help, Sparks’ conduct was “condemnable” and “demanded punishment.”

In hindsight, Sparks said not asking the government for immunity from prosecution beforehand was a blunder on his part.

“As I was doing it, I didn’t believe I needed a lawyer,” he said in a lengthy telephone interview with The State Journal hours after his sentencing. “I believed I was a partner in the investigation. I was advised at one point before my grand jury testimony that I was a good prosecuting attorney working under difficult circumstances and should have remained in office.

“None of us do our jobs perfectly, but I didn’t believe I needed immunity — I didn’t feel like there was anything I’d done or failed to do that would require immunity, and I was never given a Miranda warning or any other explicit indication that I was a target of the investigation.”

Sparks, in fact, said he had concerns about his county’s political dynamics early in his tenure as prosecutor — enough so that when he was first elected, he gave federal investigators “substantial documentation of wrongdoing, what I believed to be wrongdoing in the county,” including information pertaining to Thornsbury.

“There’s this misconception that I only came forward after evidence of guilt was presented against me,” he added. “That is absolutely not true. It was self-initiated. I was aware of the investigation going on shortly after Crum was murdered. I had a conversation with (the investigator) ... and made the determination that I was the prosecutor and I should tell them about things going on that concerned me.”

Guilty by Association

Sparks said he never considered himself a part of Team Mingo, much less a key player.

Even though the group had endorsed him for election in 2012, he said he considered it a “marketing gimmick” and tried to distance himself as much as he could from the county’s two rival Democratic factions and their political machinations. Allowing himself to be associated with either of them, even if it was just on paper, was a mistake, he said.

“It’s the way the dynamics are down here,” he said. “There are two Democratic factions — the reason candidates get in a faction is there’s power in numbers. You can’t know everyone. Every candidate has friends and supporters, of course, but people go in factions because they can multiply their support by the people in the faction.

“Unfortunately, that puts you in danger of being associated with them and if they make mistakes, you’re guilty by association.”

People assume he knew the extremes Thornsbury was willing to go to get what he wanted, Sparks said, though they never moved in the same circles.

“Frankly, I avoided being in his inner circle,” Sparks added. “I was never close to him socially or even politically ... I’ve never been in Thornsbury’s home, he’s never been in my home. I’ve never had a meal with him other than the occasional lunch — the same goes for most of the other members of Team Mingo, the so-called Team Mingo. But, regrettably, that’s a tag I will bear the rest of my life.”

Sparks said there was only one occasion Thornsbury came to his office, “and that was when I was walking the tightrope of assisting a federal investigation.” The courthouse was equipped with cameras, and Thornsbury had been informed a federal investigator had met privately with Sparks in his office.

At that point, he said Thornsbury was noticeably suspicious.

“Obviously, when a federal investigator comes to your office there’s going to be some suspicion,” Sparks said. “Basically, he was grilling me with a bunch of questions, asking me what they said, what questions they asked, what I said. It was an uncomfortable moment.”

Sparks insists he wasn’t part of the back-room scheming to quiet White, though he takes “full responsibility” for not helping him when he learned of their plan.

“There was so much I was unaware of,” he said. “There was no meeting where I went and schemed with them. It’s already been acknowledged that I didn’t devise the scheme.”

All that directly contradicts Thornsbury’s sworn “stipulation of facts,” signed in September, which portrays Sparks as a key cog in the White conspiracy. In that document, Thornsbury characterized Sparks as “a close associate and political ally” of Crum’s, credited the sheriff, commissioner Baisden and Sparks for devising the scheme and claimed the trio approached White’s brother, Glenn, to help them convince George White to fire his attorney.

Thornsbury also said in that document after he approved George White’s replacement counsel, Sparks met with White “off the record” to arrange a more lenient sentence “as a reward for replacing his counsel.”

“I dispute many, many allegations in that information,” Sparks said. “If you review my information and my stipulation of facts and his, there are glaring differences.”

‘It’s Really Big’

Sparks characterizes Thornsbury as “vindictive, sinister and vindictive” and figures the judge saw his world of power and privilege crumbling around him and reacted accordingly. By the time Thornsbury signed that stipulation of facts he was under indictment not just for his role in the White conspiracy, but also for trying to unjustly imprison a romantic rival, Robert Woodruff, whose wife, Kimberly, was Thornsbury’s administrative assistant.

With his options limited, Sparks figures the judge essentially chose the lesser of the evils.

“I don’t know what went on there,” he said. “I wasn’t there, but it’s reasonable to infer he was confronted with the facts of who would be testifying against him.”

He said he knew nothing about Thornsbury’s fascination with Kimberly Woodruff and the lengths the disgraced judge was willing to go to get her to sleep with him — and that included, according to the government, trying to get one of his associates to plant a black box containing cocaine in her husband’s truck, convincing another to file a false criminal complaint against Woodruff’s husband and rigging a grand jury, all so he could get Robert Woodruff out of the picture.

“I knew nothing about that until late July or August of 2013, I think it was, when a witness came to me,” Sparks said. “He was terrified. I told him to get out of town; I told him I would tell (the investigators) and they would call him. Then the next day another witness came in ... at that point I thought I was being set up. I was actually afraid for my own safety. I thought it was too big a coincidence.

“I remember telling (the investigator) it was either something really big or they were setting me up, and he said ‘No, it’s really big.’”

Sparks said one of the witnesses who came to him told him “the big man” wanted the secretary’s husband to get six months in jail.

“At the time I was taken aback, but that’s as far as it went until I got the evidence in the case and reviewed it,” he said. “When I saw the bits and pieces of the puzzle coming together, I immediately called his attorney and told him I was going to dismiss the case against his client.”

Federal charges that Thornsbury sought to deprive Robert Woodruff of his constitutional protections were dismissed in exchange for Thornsbury’s admission that he had violated White’s rights.

“Given the facts in the Woodruff scenario, pleading to the White case was more attractive to him for obvious reasons,” Sparks maintains.

Thornsbury, however, is being sued personally and professionally by Robert Woodruff in federal court, and by Kimberly Woodruff in state court.

In retrospect, Sparks figures he and his family would have been safer “and it would have been purely in my own self-interest to not have run for re-election in 2012.”

“The witness to the ‘black box’ incident had told me he’d been threatened, substantially, with the loss of his life, if it ever came out,” Sparks said. “I was very concerned, yes. But I had to go on with business as usual; I had to try and at least give the impression that it was business as usual at the same time as I was periodically meeting with federal investigators, calling them when I would think of things or observe things that I thought were relevant to the investigation and encouraging witnesses to come forward.”

Big Price to Pay

Sparks said he’d hoped the government would consider alternative sentencing, like probation or house arrest, as his punishment, perhaps even requiring him to do community service speaking engagements on the perils of political corruption.

But a year behind bars?

“I’ve accepted responsibility for the charge against me,” he said. “As I said at my allocution, justice was served: A judge with an insatiable thirst for power and control no longer reigns from the bench in Mingo County. Do I think my penalty is fair? No, I don’t.

“Reasonable people may disagree, but I don’t think it was fair and I don’t think it will encourage people to cooperate with the government — the disposition in my case is no incentive for people to come forth, even though if I hadn’t cooperated and evidence had come forward, it likely would have led to more serious charges. Human nature what it is, I think most people would wait and see rather than come forward if they thought they would get a year. But it was my official and moral duty to assist the investigation, and I don’t regret it.”

But the idea that soon, someone will be telling him what he can do, and when, every minute of every day for a year isn’t something he relishes.

“Do I dread being separated from the daughters I adore and my loving wife, who I value more than anything, for a year? Certainly,” he said. “Do I look forward to living in a federal prison camp, being told when to get up and when to go to bed? Of course not, but you have to keep living, you have to persevere. I’m sure there will be dark days, but I’ll have to persevere and make the best of it, do the most good I can in that situation. You always have the opportunity to serve others and glorify God, and that’s what I’m going to do even if it means I have to go to a federal prison camp to do it.

“I readily accept His sovereign will and will do that. But am I to the point, as James says in the Bible, of rejoicing in suffering? No, I’m not there.”

Sparks said he’s been “profoundly humbled by the support, the encouragement, the prayers” from people who know him and some who don’t.

“Certainly, when the substantial assistance motion was unsealed and then the government was asked to file a memorandum, I was relieved by that,” Sparks said. “I knew at least people would know the circumstances and the extent of my assistance in the investigation.

“I think public sentiment has changed. That’s not to say there aren’t still some negatives, but ... John F. Kennedy once correctly observed the greatest enemy of truth is not lies, but myths — persistent, persuasive and unrealistic myths. There are still a lot of myths about things that occurred in Mingo County, but it’s not appropriate for me to go into great detail about that. That’s not to minimize what happened, but myths have been created that are not truths.”

Comfort in Faith

Sparks said he’s found comfort in his faith, the idea that all things — even the bad ones — happen for a reason. One recent post on his Facebook page reminds: “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever.” Another points out, “It may seem that no good deed goes unpunished, but what was meant for evil God makes good to advance His holy purposes.”

“I believe all things work together for the good of those who love God, and that there is a greater purpose,” Sparks said. “Greater men than I have suffered far worse circumstances. I have to maintain my faith. I believe in the promises of God and the Bible, I believe there’s a greater purpose for this and there will be a greater good for this.”

“It was my duty, officially and morally, to assist the investigation,” he adds. “Do I think I was treated completely fair? Some would say I was, but I’ll respectfully disagree.

“But I’m a religious person, I believe God is sovereign over all things and this was His will that this happened. Things happen according to His will.”

But even harder than going to prison for a year will be telling his now 9-year-old twin daughters where he’s going, and why. So far, Sparks said he and his wife have been able to shield them from the events of the past 14 months and his role in all of it, but he said sooner rather than later, the couple will have to sit the girls down and have “the talk.”

“We’ve shielded them, and I’ll continue to shield them as long as I can,” he said. “As a Christian parent, I don’t espouse the philosophy that I have to expose them to the world. We’re entrusted with children by God. We have to protect and shield them, but the time will come when we have to have that discussion.

“I’ll put a positive spin on it, but I’ll be truthful. I’ll tell them there are things I can do to help others while I’m there, things I hope I can do and that I can use it as a mission opportunity. It may be the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life, but they need to find out from their mother and father. ... Life is difficult, it’s not always fair, but you have to persevere. And through God’s grace and His strength you can persevere.”

He concedes it won’t be an easy conversation, “but I will tell them Daddy associated with some people that had done some bad things,” he said.

“I’ll tell them Daddy made some mistakes and because of that, Daddy is in trouble. I may use an analogy, like when they’re in school and someone does something that’s against the rules and the whole class gets punished for it,” he said. “But I’ll also tell them Daddy will do some good things while he’s in there, that I will try to teach people, teach them about God, and Daddy will be back.”

Sparks repeats his sentiments he shared during his allocution, that he is blessed.

“I’m blessed to have a beautiful and devoted wife and two children who bring me profound joy, parents who perpetually support me and friends, brothers and sisters in Christ who lift me every day,” he said. “Beauty has arisen from the ashes in my case: I am an even better father and husband than I was before.

“I’ve become more spiritually focused in my brokenness.”

Sparks resigned from office and surrendered his law license for five years as part of his plea deal. Since then, he’s worked as an assistant in an attorney’s office and managed a movie theater in Kentucky.

“Far greater men then me have gone through even worse trials and tribulations and overcome them, and I will, too,” he said. “Even though I stand condemned, I do not regret my contributions to the pursuit of justice in Mingo County.”

But even he admits the county’s political dynamics haven’t changed all that much.

“This past election was probably one of the most bitterly fought in the history of Mingo County. We still have two factions, and they still throw accusations at each other. Unfortunately, politics is a contest and it’s not for the weak.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned from the past 14 months, he said, it’s that as a public official, “you can become detached from the real world.”

“You live in an ivory tower, and the higher you go in the food chain the greater the risk that you’ll become detached from the human factor,” he said. “You get in that ivory tower, it’s like you’re immunized from the price you may have to pay.”