Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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June 9, 2014

Ex-Mingo judge sentenced to 50 months in prison

CHARLESTON (AP) — A federal judge on Monday sentenced a former Mingo County judge to 50 months in prison on corruption charges, saying the defendant’s abuse of power was what could be expected from a “third-world dictator.”

U.S. Judge Thomas E. Johnston in Charleston said Michael Thornsbury transformed Mingo County government into something unrecognizable during his 17 years as the county’s lone judge. Thornsbury’s sentence was stiffer than the 30 to 37 months in prison federal guidelines suggest.

Last year Thornsbury pleaded guilty to conspiring to deprive a campaign sign maker, George White, of his constitutional rights. Prosecutors said Thornsbury participated in a scheme to protect the late Sheriff Eugene Crum, a political ally, from accusations that the sheriff bought prescription painkillers from White.

Crum had White arrested in early 2013 instead of paying the money he owed for signs and other materials. White then went to federal agents and told them he provided Crum with painkillers.

Mingo County has become a symbol of corruption in the southwestern West Virginia coalfields. Last year, a prosecutor, magistrate and county commissioner also pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a federal corruption probe. In April, White sued several county officials over his imprisonment.

“That is the kind of thing one might expect, though still condemn, in the regime of some third world dictator,” Johnston said of Thornsbury’s actions as judge. “It is an ugly insult to the United States Constitution.”

An emotional White testified at Monday’s hearing about the 240 days he spent in jail and prison. He said he still fears for his life while a federal probe of Mingo County corruption continues.

Johnston said the sentence would have been 60 months, but Thornsbury has cooperated in other investigations.

Federal prosecutors said Thornsbury deserved a lengthy sentence because he had abused his power and damaged the county’s judicial system.

Fighting back tears Monday, Thornsbury apologized to his family, White and the public before being sentenced.

“I failed,” Thornsbury said. “I allowed the law to be clouded by loyalties, misguided ambition and pride.”

Thornsbury’s lawyers depicted how his life has unraveled. His wife divorced him, he lost his law license and pension, and someone burned down his parents’ home place.

In April 2013, Crum was fatally shot while eating lunch in his parked cruiser in downtown Williamson. A judge has indefinitely postponed the trial of the man charged with killing Crum.

Prosecutors said Crum had sought the help of Thornsbury, a former county prosecutor and a former county commissioner in a scheme to try to keep White from talking to the FBI about Crum. White was told that if he switched lawyers and pleaded guilty to drug charges, he would receive a lighter sentence from Thornsbury, prosecutors say.

After the sentencing, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said he hoped the case had strengthened the resolve of Mingo County residents to reject corruption as the status quo.

“It’s really up to the people of Mingo County, the people of West Virginia, to turn the corner, and I hope that they do,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said. “This is an opportunity.”


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