Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 29, 2013

Political scandals, corruption tarnish reputation of southern West Virginia

— — Haughty glances. Superior stares. Noses turned up in a pose that makes it easier to look down on those beneath them. It’s an attitude that sometimes emanates from those around us — out-of-staters and in-state northern neighbors.        

Why the disdain? Because of the lies, the scandals, the corruption and back-door deals that have plagued southern West Virginia politics for decades. Because we, in our naivety and good-buddy culture, have allowed ourselves to become mired in muck — to accept that outrageous behavior and scandalous conduct is the norm.

We allow those in positions of power to ignore the law and tread the bounds of righteous behavior, and then continue to elect them to office. When do we say enough is enough?

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Headlines from Mingo County in recent weeks have been disturbing. Disgraced former Circuit Court Judge  Michael Thornsbury is alleged to have had the husband of his former mistress framed for various crimes. There are a multitude of purported co-conspirators who knew of the plots, yet said nothing.

Recent federal charges allege that Thornsbury also conspired with the late Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum to frame a businessman and drug dealer — from whom Crum himself was buying drugs — in order for the sheriff to get out of paying for business services.

Yes, it’s a tangled, twisted and corrupt mess. It’s a plot so unimaginable a fiction writer might scoff at its premise. Yet it is reality here in southern West Virginia.

This month Thornsbury’s wife filed for divorce, and the case has been moved to the docket of Mercer-McDowell Family Court Judge Mary Ellen Griffith.

So we now have a soap opera, crime series and political expose all rolled in to one salacious script.

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In the midst of the Mingo scandal, Mercer has its own emerging black eye. Magistrate Rick Fowler is under investigation for a racy Facebook message thread with a women who has appeared before him in court.

The Daily Telegraph obtained screenshots of the message thread weeks ago, and has since been trying to sort out facts from rumor and gossip.

What we know is that Fowler is the subject of a current local investigation and that he was admonished last year by the state Supreme Court Judicial Investigation Commission for an inappropriate relationship with a woman who was the wife and victim of a man who had appeared before him in court.

During a telephone interview last week, Fowler acknowledged that he was a participant in the personal message thread, dispelling any doubts that the explicit online chatter could have been generated from a fake social messaging site.

Much of the message thread is too lewd to be printed in the pages of this newspaper. The thread contains graphic sexual banter between Fowler and a Princeton woman, and discussion of meeting for a sexual tryst.

Fowler called the investigation and public spotlight on what was supposed to be a private message “kind of ridiculous. I’m not married, this girl is not married and we goof around and talk on Facebook. We tease and talk crap.”

That might be a valid argument if the woman had not appeared before Fowler in court.

Criminal complaints obtained by the Daily Telegraph show the woman has appeared in Fowler’s court on at least three occasions — twice in November 2012 on domestic violence and obstructing an officer charges and once in January of this year on a domestic assault charge.

The most damning statement of all in the message thread: “This has to be private. If anyone knew.....it would keep me frim [sic] being able to help you out with other things in the future. ok? [sic]”

Fowler denies having sexual relations with the woman and has a convoluted explanation for this statement. He said the comment about not being able to “help you in the future” was his way of telling the woman that if they were dating he could not help her in the future. “That’s a personal message from me to her, thrown out into the world ... and honestly, all it is, is stating a fact,” Fowler said.

Fowler contends this current controversy is being stirred by a political rival who wants his job. This could be true. But it still does not excuse Fowler’s actions.

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The expectation is that judges live by a code of conduct beyond that of average people. They are expected to be free from scandal and to avoid moral misconduct. The torrid Facebook message thread between Fowler and a woman who has appeared before him as a defendant breaks the vow of decency and bond of trust with the people of Mercer County.

When Fowler was admonished last year for an inappropriate relationship he was warned by the court “to refrain from engaging in similar behavior in the future.” It appears he did not learn his lesson or heed the court’s decree.

Magistrate Fowler should resign immediately. This action could be the first step in the cleansing of a political system that has marred the reputation of southern West Virginia for decades.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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