CHARLESTON - Former Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney C. Michael Sparks entered a guilty plea in federal court to a misdemeanor charge in connection with a conspiracy to deprive a Mingo County resident of his constitutional rights, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced today.
Sparks, 44, is the third former Mingo County official to plead guilty to federal charges involving a scheme to allegedly cover up evidence of illegal drug use and other misconduct by late Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said, “Prosecutors are the representatives of the people. Instead of advancing the interests of the good people of Mingo County, Mr. Sparks chose to roll over for the special interests of a corrupt political faction.”
According to the plea agreement provided by the U.S. Attorney’s office, earlier this year, a Mingo County drug defendant, identified as “George White” began to provide the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) with information about misconduct by then Sheriff Crum, including illegal drug use and election law violations. Crum learned that the defendant, along with his attorney Charles “Butch” West, were providing information about Crum to the FBI, saying that the sheriff had on more than one occasion, purchased prescription pills from him.
Crum and other Mingo elected officials, including Sparks and former Mingo Co. Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury, allegedly carried out a plan to protect Crum and to stop White from informing to the FBI. They arranged to offer the accused drug dealer a favorable plea deal if he would fire West, who was assisting White’s communication with federal authorities, and replace him with an attorney (Ron Rumora) chosen by Crum and the other elected officials.
After White fired West and hired Rumora, Sparks allegedly entered into a plea agreement with White under which three of five criminal counts pending against the defendant were dismissed. As part of the plea agreement, Sparks also accepted a forfeiture from White of $10,000, which was $10,000 less than the forfeiture the former prosecutor originally intended to seek in this case. Moreover, as part of the agreement, Sparks is said to have agreed to recommend that the sentences for the two counts to which the defendant would plead guilty would run concurrently rather than consecutively.
Sparks negotiated this plea agreement in part with former Mingo County Commissioner David Baisden himself and, at Baisden’s behest, entered into a plea agreement more favorable that he otherwise would have. Sparks did these acts knowing that a more favorable agreement for White was a necessary part of the scheme to coerce the defendant into firing West in order to protect the Sheriff. Because Sparks was the county’s Prosecuting Attorney, his cooperation in this regard was necessary to the scheme’s success.
In the face of this coercion, West fired his attorney, which the Mingo officials involved believed would protect Crum from federal investigation and public embarrassment.
U.S. District Court Judge Thomas E. Johnston presided over today’s plea hearing and will sentence Sparks on February 24, 2014. Sparks faces a possible sentence of one year in prison. He previously resigned as Prosecuting Attorney in late October. As part of his federal guilty plea, Sparks’ plea agreement with the Office of the U.S. Attorney required him to resign from office and to never seek elected office again. Sparks is also required to voluntarily surrender his license to practice law in every state in which he holds a law license for a period of 5 years, and withdraw his opposition to the petition seeking the immediate suspension of his law license in the State of West Virginia. Sparks also agrees not to contest disbarment proceedings in any state in which he is licensed to practice law.
The Williamson Daily News took to the streets on Monday, interviewing several individuals concerning their personal feelings about the allegation made against the former prosecutor, which resulted in a mixture of responses.
“I had a situation with a family member of mine that had on several occasions, stole from me,” said Bernadette Rogers, of Matewan. “I went to the police time and time again and nothing happened. He began threatening me, I’m 74 years of age and I was scared, I mean who wouldn’t be? I got my preacher to drive me to the courthouse and I met with Mr. Sparks. He treated me with the up-most respect, took care of my situation and made sure it was taken seriously. The arrest was made and I slowly started to feel safe again. Mr. Sparks even called me after it was all over to make sure I was alright. People can say whatever they want about him but in my eyes, he was my hero. He did what no one else would help me do.”
“Everyone makes mistakes; we’re all human. I think that if any wrong was done, that’s between Michael and God.”
Wayne Russell, of Williamson, said he felt like Sparks was just as guilty as the judge and the remainder of Team Mingo, and said that he hopes the investigation continues until they’re everyone out of office.
“They’ve controlled every aspect of this county for far to many years and I hope they everyone see what it’s like to be behind bars, but I’d say they will never see the world from a cell. They will just get a slap on the wrist. Michael wasn’t as bad as the others, that’s a fact, but he should have come forth long before now and alerted the feds as to what was really going on here.”
Tabitha Warren, of Red Jacket, said that she feels that it is not a person’s place to judge the sins of another, and said that the accused needs to worry about their relationship with God because when all is said and done, he is the final judge and that is all that matters.
“I pray for all of the politicians, no matter what side of the Democratic Party they’re on. I pray that God will convict them of their wrongdoings and bless those that are doing his will. We all need to be in constant prayer for our county.”
Warren stated that everyone should also remember that these men are married and have children, some even have grandchildren, and people need to be considerate of what they are going through during these troubling times.
Former Magistrate Dallas Toler will appear in federal court on Dec. 2 at 10 a.m. to enter a guilty plea to one count of voter registration fraud. Former Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury, 57, previously pleaded guilty in October for his role in the scheme to protect Crum and deprive G.W. of his rights. Thornsbury faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 13, 2014. Former County Commissioner David Baisden pleaded guilty to an unrelated federal charge in connection with a scheme to illegally extort a discount from a Mingo County tire store. Baisden, 66, resigned from the Mingo County Commission in October. Baisden faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 14, 2014.
The investigation is being conducted by the FBI and the West Virginia State Police. Counsel to the United States Attorney Steven Ruby and Assistant United States Attorney Haley Bunn are handling the prosecution.
(Editor’s Note: The Associated Press contributed to this article.)