Thornsbury, troopers, and government transparency

August 16, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Judge Michael Thornsbury

In this July 2004 file photo, Mingo County Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury  stands in a stairwell of the Mingo County Courthouse, in Williamson, W.Va. Federal prosecutors on Thursday, Aug 15, 2013, charged Judge Thornsbury with abusing his power and commandeering a southern West Virginia grand jury in a failed attempt to frame a romantic rival for crimes he didn’t commit. (AP Photo via Charleston Gazette, by Chris Dorst)

Among the more troubling details alleged in the new federal grand jury indictment of Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury is the accusation that a West Virginia State Trooper was essentially part of the judge’s plot to frame the husband of a secretary who had broken off an affair with Judge Thornsbury.

As the Gazette’s Kate White described in this story:

The indictment also alleges Thornsbury enlisted State Police Trooper Brandon Moore, who worked in the Williamson detachment, to file a criminal complaint against Robert Woodruff, accusing him of stealing scrap metal from his employer.

Woodruff worked at a coal preparation plant, where mined coal was processed before being shipped. There, he removed scrap metal that had fallen in with the coal.

When Thornsbury found that Woodruff’s supervisors allowed him to salvage drill bits, among other scraps that could be repurposed, he allegedly persuaded Moore to file a criminal complaint against him.

Moore — who was named West Virginia State Police “Trooper of the Year” in 2010 — resisted at first because he knew Woodruff’s bosses allowed him to take the metal, according to prosecutors. But the trooper eventually gave in to the judge and filed the complaint, the indictment alleges.

The indictment also alleges that Trooper Moore lied to a grand jury that Judge Thornsbury had put together as a tool in his effort to go after Woodruff.

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

During a press conference Thursday, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said his office plans no charges against Trooper Moore, and that any action regarding the trooper is up to the State Police:

My understanding is that he will face administrative actions, but that’s up to the State Police.

In that regard, the Gazette story went on:

State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said personnel laws prohibited him from naming the trooper placed on leave, even though the federal indictment names Moore.

Baylous said State Police assisted in the corruption probe, and knew about the allegations of misconduct by the trooper. He said they held off taking action against the trooper until the indictment was unsealed to keep from jeopardizing the federal investigation.

“The agency’s integrity is of the utmost importance not only to me, but the the people we serve,” State Police Superintendent Col. Jay Smithers said in a statement. “I have faith that this established process will serve the best interest of the public, the West Virginia State Police, and more importantly, justice itself.”

But here’s the thing: The way the State Police currently do business, the public gets to find out very little about how the agency conducts internal investigations of troopers who are accused of wrondoing.  Former Gazette reporter Gary Harki tried to shed more light on these issues, with a series of stories called Policing the Police, and his work lives on in a continuing lawsuit filed by the newspaper to try to force the State Police to release documents that detail its investigations of its own troopers.

Sean McGinley, a lawyer for the newspaper, has argued that making such records public would give the state’s citizens more confidence in the State Police:

If people think that the State Police regulates itself in secret, there is no confidence in that kind of process.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey disagreed, ruling against the Gazette last year and issuing this opinion.   But now, the Gazette’s appeal is scheduled for an argument before the state Supreme Court on Sept. 25. You can read the newspaper’s legal brief here and the State Police response here.

Among other things, the State Police argue that a simple statistical summary of trooper misconduct cases is adequate, saying:

The West Virginia State Police is providing all of the information the public might need to be assured that the agency is doing its job in processing and investigating complaints and meting out appropriate discipline to its employees as necessary by providing the public with the annual statistical report as to the activity of the Professional Standards Section.

Of course, as McGinley explains in a reply brief filed for the newspaper, West Virginia law clearly says it’s not up to the State Police to decide what the public should — and shouldn’t — know:

The public policy of the state of West Virginia that … the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments  of government they have created. To that end, the provisions of this article shall be liberally construed with the view of carrying out the above declaration of public policy.

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