West Virginia Judge Latest Member of 'Courthouse Gang' in Corruption Plea

PHOTO: Michael Thornsbury
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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.

In March, Crum and Sparks informed Thornsbury that White was speaking with the FBI, prosecutors said. According to court documents, Crum and Sparks, together with Baisden approached White's brother, Glenn White, in March and advised that Thornsbury would give White a light sentence if he fired West and accepted another attorney approved by them.

West said he was dismissed by White the day the offer was made and the message relayed to his client.

"I was really upset with it because nobody likes to get hit across the face like that," West told ABC News.

White was appointed new legal counsel, after which Crum then directed a deputy to obtain a statement from White saying he had "never provided controlled substances" to him, according to prosecutors.

White is currently serving a sentence of one to 15 years on two counts of manufacturing or delivering narcotics.

Crum has since been shot and killed, in an unrelated incident in early April.

The family of Tennis Melvin Maynard, 37, accused of shooting Crum as he ate lunch in his parked car, have claimed the sheriff had molested Maynard when he was a teenager.

Ruby said that Baisden has already pleaded guilty to extortion charges.

Ruby would not comment on whether Sparks would be charged for his alleged role in the conspiracy, although he has confirmed Sparks' cooperation in the case against Thornsbury.

Thornsbury's legal counsel, Stephen Jory did not immediately respond to calls from ABC News.

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