Mingo sheriff, prosecutor: officials will rebuild public trust - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

Mingo sheriff, prosecutor: Officials will rebuild public trust

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Some Mingo County officials say 2013 has been a tough year for the county with the shooting death of its sheriff, corruption allegations surfacing against two county officials and a continuing federal investigation.

Mingo County Prosecutor Michael Sparks said after corruption accusations surfaced, some people have been concerned about their remaining elected officials.

"The unknown is the most frightening," he said. "People are still waiting to see how it's resolved."

Sparks himself has been scrutinized. Some have called for his resignation because he admitted to having some knowledge of the accusations against Michael Thornsbury, the Mingo County Circuit Judge who was removed from his post after being arrested Aug. 15 on federal charges.

At that time, Sparks said he didn't report the alleged misconduct because he worked in an "intimidating environment."

For right now, Sparks said his priority is the federal investigation.

"That's more important," he said. "Defending my integrity takes a backseat to the investigation."

Related to the federal investigation, Sparks said the circuit court's docket has been backlogged with orders, motions and cases.

Normally, he said they would have one pending case for the April-September court term. However, now, the court has about 19 pending criminal cases because of court cancellations in August, he said.

"Hopefully, by January, we will be ready to go forward with our normal caseload," Sparks said.

Sparks said Senior Judge John Cummings of Cabell County and retired justice Thomas McHugh have been doing a great job catching up the county's backlog of cases.

Sparks said court cancellations have been part of the problem, but he said defendants also were hoping for a technicality to get their cases dismissed.  Sparks explained there is a statute that says if one grand juror is disqualified, it does not invalidate indictments.

"Absent of a showing of fraud, the indictments will stand," Sparks said.

However, Sparks said his office is closely looking at two cases.

In the first case, Sparks said it has been alleged that a search warrant was signed retroactively and in the other case, there are allegations of a residence searched without consent. Sparks said both of the cases involve the same West Virginia State Police trooper who was named in Thornsbury's indictment as having agreed to some of Thornsbury's schemes. 

If these claims are substantiated, Sparks said his office will seek to have convictions vacated.

Yet, even with a backlog of cases and some residents expressing distrust, Sparks and the county's newly-appointed interim sheriff, James Smith, both say they think Mingo County can break through the "cloud" that seems to hang over the county.

"There's great people in this county. I want to rebuild our name because there are great people in office," said Smith, who was appointed Sept. 16 to his position. Smith said he definitely will run for sheriff in 2014.

The Mingo County Commission appointed Smith to replace Pam Dixon, chief tax deputy for Mingo County. Dixon was selected interim sheriff after Rosie Crum announced she would step down following a federal investigation mentioning her husband, the late Eugene Crum. Eugene Crum served as sheriff when he was shot and killed April 3.

Smith, who served as chief deputy until his appointment, said it was difficult to lose Eugene Crum, who he described as a close friend and fellow officer.

When asked if he was afraid for his safety because of the shooting of Crum, Smith responded he was not afraid because of that.

"Anytime you're a police office, that fear is in your head," Smith said. "But I'm going to live my life like I have for the last 16 years as a police officer."

One of Smith's goals as sheriff is to tackle the drug problem in the county. Smith said he wants to re-start the drug task force, which he says has been on hold since Crum's death. He also wants to educate Mingo County kids about drugs in order to break the cycle.  

"I don't want to just be a sheriff behind the desk," Smith said as he drove around the streets of Williamson.  "I want to be out with the people."

Smith said trust in public officials has been a big hurdle for residents, but he thinks the public will regain its trust in its elected officials.

"Trust is hard to get and easy to lose," he said. "Yes, we will get through this and we need to keep our faith. We need to put our trust in God."

One month ago, Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden and Thornsbury were arrested and indicted on unrelated charges as part of a federal investigation.

Baisden was charged with extortion under color of official right, specifically, attempting to obstruct, delay and affecting commerce and the movement of an article and commodity in commerce.

According to the indictment, Baisden was the purchasing agent for the Mingo County Commission. He had the authority to purchase goods and services on behalf of the commission and to choose the suppliers of those goods and services.

Jerry Colegrove was a commission employee who managed and supervised a garage operated by the commission for the purpose of maintaining commission-owned vehicles.

Federal prosecutors say around June 2009, Baisden directed Colegrove to purchase a set of tires for a vehicle that belonged to Baisden and his wife. The tires were to be purchased from Appalachian Tire at the government price.

When Appalachian Tire learned the tires were to be used on Baisden's personal vehicle, it refused to sell them at the discounted price. Colegrove told Appalachian Tire that it risked losing the county's business, but the store refused to sell them at the discounted price, according to the indictment.

On June 12, 2009, Baisden left a voicemail with Appalachian Tire saying that if it did not sell him the tires at the discounted price, the store would lose the county's business, the indictment states. The store did not respond to the threat.

On June 15, Baisden again phoned the store to tell the manager that it had lost the commission's business. Baisden directed Colegrove to stop purchasing tires at the store, the indictment states. 

The indictment against Thornsbury, meanwhile, alleges the former circuit judge had an extramarital relationship with his secretary and conspired to plant illegal drugs on her husband's pickup, have him arrested for thefts he did not commit and also commandeer a state grand jury to oppress the husband and his family.

After an incident in which the husband was the victim of an assault, Thornsbury arranged for the husband, rather than the perpetrator, to receive "an exceptionally harsh sentence," according to the indictment.

Both men pleaded not guilty in Aug. 21 arraignment hearings in Charleston federal court. Baisden's trial is set for 9 a.m. Oct. 15 and Thornsbury's trial is set for 9:30 a.m. Oct. 21.

Going forward, Sparks said he hopes as the federal investigation continues, officials will work to reestablish public trust.

Sparks said after the federal investigation concludes, his office and other officials will have town meetings in every district to answer questions and share visions about going forward.

"The fact of the matter is it's reasonable to be under public scrutiny," Sparks said. "There are two indictments and the investigation continues. It's reasonable for any Mingo public official to be scrutinized.

"It's up to us to reestablish that trust and that's going to take time. We will stand on our individual records. We're not from the same lump of clay."