A Georgia weekly newspaper at the center of firestorm shuts its doors

Publisher and attorney were jailed after seeking records

A newspaper publisher, jailed a year ago after he pushed for records about a judge’s spending of public money, is now earning a living in construction.

The Fannin Focus has been shuttered.

The downfall of Mark Thomason and his tiny North Georgia weekly comes a year after they emerged as a cause celebre. Thomason and Hiawassee attorney Russell Stookey were locked up and charged with felonies for seeking public records related to a well-connected local judge. The case attracted national media attention and drew widespread condemnation from advocates for a free press.

But as the controversy swirled, businesses in Blue Ridge began cancelling ads they had scheduled to run. The death spiral of the Fannin Focus couldn’t be stopped.

“They were trying to strangle that little paper,” Stookey said of local leaders who were the subject of the stories that led to felony charges.

RELATED: How a Georgia judge spent money from operating account

MORE: Georgia judge a finalist for government secrecy award

One of the first to pull out was Herb Windham, who for two years was a significant advertiser. He cancelled two full-page ads for his Blue Ridge Marina celebrating July 4.

“I didn’t feel like I got anything for my money,” Windham said.

Windham said he continues to run his huge July 4 spread and other ads in two other papers that serve Blue Ridge.

It had nothing to do with Thomason’s high-profile arrest or the local officials or the newspaperman’s attempt to get copies of public records or recordings of court proceedings, Windham said.

“I don’t even know if Mark is around town. I haven’t heard anything from the guy in about 11 months,” he said.

Fannin County Commission Chairman Stan Helton, in office since the first of the year, believes market forces are to blame for the paper’s demise, but acknowledges that the newspaper was aggressive and sometimes upset locals.

“The Focus would tackle things that were controversial, that no one else would touch,” Helton said. “You can have your debate of whether it was the right thing to do. Political pressure to shut down? I don’t see where that would have any impact.”

Attorney Cynthia Counts, who is on the board of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said bringing criminal charges against a newspaperman and his lawyer “chills free speech and … can have devastating financial consequences. It certainly put him in a bad light.”

It’s not unexpected for local businesses to want some distance from a newspaper owner who a judge hates enough to push for their arrest, Counts said

“Who wants the risk of associating with somebody who’s been accused of criminal conduct?” she added.

There are more than 100 weekly newspapers in Georgia and about half of them are locally-owned. Many are community-focused, covering things like citizens getting awards and civic club meetings as well as city and county government operations.

“There will always be a few elected officials who try to bully their way through criticism of their actions, whether it be from the local newspaper or from people in their community who disagree with them,” said Robin Rhodes, executive director of the Georgia Press Association.

“They might try to freeze out the paper from getting information, but it’s hard for them to do that legally with Georgia’s Sunshine Laws,” Rhodes said.

“Even when they try to punish journalists in other ways, such as encouraging local businesses to boycott the newspaper, those efforts usually end quickly because businesses need newspapers to reach their customers and because people understand that journalists are simply doing their jobs. People value having an independent voice that speaks up when government officials are improperly carrying out their elected duties.”

The saga unfolded last June 24, when Thomason and Stookey were indicted and arrested on felony charges.

Their arrests came after an on-going, months-long disagreement with Superior Court Judge Brenda Weaver, then the chief judge in Blue Ridge. 

A grand jury sitting in neighboring Gilmer County indicted Thomason and Stookey on charges of identity fraud and attempting to commit identity fraud. The case against them was based on subpoenas they served on two local banks for copies of checks written to cover the legal fees of court reporter Rhonda Stubblefield, who had sued Thomason for defamation. Thomason was also charged with making a false statement for the wording of a written request for records; he had asked for copies of checks that may have been“cashed illegally” to withdraw funds court operating accounts.

The legal battle is rooted in a fight Thomason was having with a local court reporter. He had filed suit to obtain audio tapes of a court proceeding — tapes he thought would reveal information that was not in the court reporter’s transcript. 

The stenographer filed a counterclaim, saying Thomason had defamed her by questioning the accuracy of a court transcript.

Eventually, Thomason heard the recording and Stubblefield dropped her suit on the basis that Thomason did not have the funds to pay an award if she won.

But then Stubblefield sued Thomason to recoup $16,000 she paid to bring the suit. And Thomason asked for the bank records to show that Weaver had already paid Stubblefield’s legal expenses out of the court’s operating expense account.

The criminal charges were brought little more than two weeks after the subpoenas were served.

The reaction to their jailing was immediate.

Their arrests received national news coverage. Four organizations that represent the interests of the media. In a statement, the organizations called the indictments an “inappropriate to use criminal charges to try and silence a critic.” 

Defense attorneys said it was a dangerous precedent to arrest a lawyer because he served a subpoena.

Some in the legal community questioned the charging decision.

A Judicial Qualifications Commission complaint was filed against Weaver. Weaver resigned as chair of the JQC, which has since been dismantled and reconstituted.

A week after the charges were brought, the district attorney dropped the case at Weaver’s request.

But controversy continued.

The FBI began investigating and a federal grand jury issued subpoenas. That federal case was also abandoned.

By August, Thomason said, it was becoming impossible to pay the newspaper’s bills.

“It was really tough,” said Jason Banks, who was the editor and is now earning a living by running a local fitness center and providing personal training. “There was so much negativity toward us. A lot of people believed that Mark was guilty (of a crime).

“When he went to jail … things weren’t going great, but we were surviving. We were making it work,” Banks said. “We were going after the news that other people weren’t talking about.”

The last printed edition of the Fannin Focus was on Oct. 13, two years and five months after it opened. Thomason said the message he got was that the goal of some was to shut down the Fannin Focus.

The newspaper tried to continue publishing on-line but that effort failed too. The on-line version of the Fannin Focus shut down in December.

Weaver was recently honored with a dubious distinction: she is a finalist for a government secrecy award for attempts to hide public information from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national journalism group.

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