A West Virginia judge is set to plead guilty Wednesday to his alleged role in covering up drug allegations against the county's sheriff, the latest revelation about a group of county officials known to federal prosecutors as the "Courthouse Gang."
Judge Michael Thornsbury's expected plea is the latest corruption bombshell in the small coal mining county of Mingo.
The judge is expected to plead guilty to hindering an FBI investigation into drug allegations involving Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum.
"There is a plea agreement between our office and Judge Thornsbury, under which he's going to plead guilty," said the lead prosecutor on the case, Steve Ruby of the U.S. Attorney's office. "We are pleased that Mr. Thornsbury is cooperating as the matter moves forward."
Ruby filed court documents Monday laying out the factual and legal basis for Thornsbury's guilty plea in an alleged plot hatched by the so-called "Courthouse Gang."
Thornsbury will plead guilty to violating the Sixth Amendment by depriving a criminal defendant his right to legal counsel of his choice, for which the maximum penalty is 10 years, the court papers state.
Prosecutors say Thornsbury, who served as the county's sole circuit court judge since 1997, together with Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks and County Commissioner David Baisden, devised a scheme to save Crum's reputation by stopping an FBI informant from revealing drug deals he allegedly made with the sheriff.
The federal prosecutor's office said the deal forms part of plea bargain under which other corruption charges against the suspended judge will be dismissed. The plea also requires Thornsbury's cooperation with investigators.
"Our investigation in Mingo County is continuing," said Ruby.
The court papers depict a rural country in which in a clique of county officials protected each other from prosecution.
A key member of the group, according to the prosecution's case, was Crum, a former magistrate who had been hailed as a drug crusader since he took his new office on Jan. 1. Crum had filed more drug indictments in his first three months of office than had been filed by the sheriff's office in the previous eight years.
Thornsbury, described in court documents as a "close associate and political ally of Crum's," is accused of depriving an FBI informant of his right to counsel of his own choice after the informant told the FBI of Crum's alleged drug use.
The informant, George White, is a sign maker who provided materials for Crum's 2012 campaign for sheriff, court documents state.
Prosecutors say when White demanded his outstanding fees of $3,000, Crum sent a "confidential police informant" to purchase three tablets of the drug Oxycodone from White, and then arrested him on Feb. 1.
White, accompanied by his former attorney, Charles West, informed FBI agents in late February that Crum had previously purchased prescription drugs from him "on multiple occasions," court documents reveal.