Ex-Mingo prosecutor gets one year in federal prison

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette
Former Mingo County prosecuting attorney Michael Sparks (left) leaves the Robert C. Byrd U.S. District Courthouse in Charleston with his wife, Jennifer, and attorney, Kent Varney, on Monday afternoon. Sparks was sentenced to a year in prison for his role in a Mingo County corruption scheme.

A federal judge sentenced the former prosecuting attorney of Mingo County on Monday to a year in prison and said he would have given him longer — possibly much longer — if he could.

Michael Sparks, 44, pleaded guilty last year to one count of deprivation of rights under the color of law, a misdemeanor. He admitted he took part in a scheme to deprive George White of his right to have the attorney of his choice.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentenced Sparks to the statutory maximum the charge carries, despite Sparks’ lengthy plea for an alternative sentence, like home confinement.

“You had an obligation as a prosecutor to treat George White in a fair and just manner. However instead of justice, you gave him injustice,” Johnston said. “This sentence needs to repeat, repeat the message that corruption must come to an end in Mingo County and Southern West Virginia.

“Ultimately, the citizens of Mingo County and Southern West Virginia must stand up against political corruption. They should have confidence that serious penalties will await those who perpetuate political corruption in Mingo County and Southern West Virginia in the future,” the judge said.

Sparks, who had been Mingo County’s prosecuting attorney since 2005 until he resigned last year, is the fourth county official to be sentenced this year in a corruption probe by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office.

“This sentence strikes an appropriate balance,” Goodwin said Monday. “It punishes wrongdoing while encouraging officials involved in public corruption to come forward, admit what they’ve done, and help federal authorities. What Sparks did was indefensible, and he deserves prison time. But his early cooperation was vital to our investigation in Mingo County.

“This sentence underscores that telling the truth at the beginning of an investigation is always a smart decision,” Goodwin said.

Johnston said he understood why prosecutors chose to charge Sparks with the misdemeanor offense, despite his part in the same scheme that landed ex-Mingo circuit judge Michael Thornsbury a 50-month prison sentence from Johnston last month on a felony charge “with essentially the same set of facts.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby told Johnston that corruption investigations rely on people like Sparks, who are willing to give up information.

Sparks provided the “initial crack in the wall,” Ruby previously wrote, that led to the convictions of Thornsbury and former county commissioner David Baisden.

Both men were also implicated in the plot to keep White, a Delbarton sign-maker, from telling federal agents he gave prescription painkillers to the county’s late sheriff, Eugene Crum. Baisden pleaded guilty in an unrelated matter and was never charged in connection to White.

“I’ve been described as the quarterback that guided the federal investigation to Thornsbury,” Sparks told Johnston.

However, “even given everything the defendant has done” to help the investigation, 12 months “should be the absolute minimum” for Sparks’ prison term, Ruby said.

The scheme began when Crum allegedly arrested White to avoid paying for $3,000 worth of campaign materials. In response, White began talking to federal investigators about prescription pills he allegedly provided to the then-sheriff.

Crum and Baisden found out, and approached Sparks about a scheme to get White to stop talking to the feds and to switch attorneys, in exchange for a lighter sentence. Sparks admitted Monday that he gave White a more favorable plea agreement than he would have with other defendants facing similar drug charges.

White was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison, but his sentences were to run at the same time, rather than one after the other. Before Thornsbury pleaded guilty to his own federal charge and resigned, he had scheduled a hearing to reconsider White’s plea.

In all, White spent about eight months in jail before Senior Status Circuit Judge John Cummings, who was appointed to fill in for Thornsbury, vacated White’s conviction and dismissed the charges earlier this year. Crum was shot to death last year while sitting in his police cruiser in downtown Williamson.

White spoke at Sparks’ sentencing and said what he’s been through has nearly caused him to file for bankruptcy. He said he has known Sparks for years.

“Mike Sparks is an all right guy, but he did do me wrong,” White said. He has filed a lawsuit in Mingo Circuit Court against Thornsbury, Sparks, and other state and county employees and officials.

Sparks apologized to White, and read a lengthy statement that touted his conviction rate while prosecutor, and, among other things, details of his cooperation with federal prosecutors.

“I wasn’t confronted with charges before I came forward,” Sparks said. “I made a mistake and I wanted to help them to pursue justice ... in my county.”

Sparks’ attorney, Kent Varney, asked the judge to give Sparks an alternative sentence, like community service, where he could teach others about political corruption. He’s been working as a manager at a movie theater and at a law office. As part of his plea deal with prosecutors, Sparks resigned from office and surrendered his law license.

Sparks was never charged in connection to another alleged Mingo plot, this one to land the husband of Thornsbury’s former secretary in prison. In Thornsbury’s indictment for that charge, prosecutors said Sparks may have known of that scheme. Prosecutors said Thornsbury put his business partner in charge of a Mingo grand jury as foreman, plotted to plant drugs on Woodruff and tried to get him sent to jail with the help of a State Police trooper and Gilbert police officer. Thornsbury allegedly hoped that if Robert Woodruff was in jail, Kim Woodruff would be forced to have an affair with him for financial reasons. Those charges against Thornsbury were dropped when he pleaded guilty to his role in the White scheme.

Sparks told the Gazette last year that he worked in an “intimidating environment.” He said during Monday’s hearing that Thornsbury had threatened him several times when it was suspected he was cooperating with federal prosecutors.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

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