June 22, 2014
Once again, the people of Mingo County find themselves in the unenviable position of being looked down upon by the people of the rest of West Virginia.
By now, Mingo County is no longer looked upon with pity, but with disgust, by its neighbors in the region, as political corruption has become so ingrained in the fabric of life in the coalfields.
Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, was being kind when he said recently during the sentencing of former Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury, “Mr. Thornsbury’s conduct was shocking and appalling .”
The fact is that nothing their politicians say or do should shock or appall the people of Mingo County anymore.
It may have shocked or appalled Mingo County residents in the late 1980s, when about half the elected officials in the county courthouse were convicted in federal court and sentenced to jail time, but it shouldn’t surprise us these days.
If anything, in the years since, Mingo County politicians have become bolder and their criminal enterprises have beome more elaborate.
In the 1980s, the federal charges that Mingo County officeholders were convicted of were crimes like mail fraud, perjury and possession and sale of narcotics.
Thornsbury, who had been Mingo County’s only circuit judge for 17 years, was convicted of conspiring to deprive a defendant of his constitutional rights, for perverting the very principles of justice he was sworn to uphold.
And that was only one of the charges brought against him by a federal grand jury. The others resulted from a scheme in which he and co-conspirators, both named and unnamed, sought to frame the husband of Thornsbury’s mistress to try to persuade her to return to him after she had broken off her relationship with the judge.
Talk about tangled webs.
There was a time when public service was considered an honorable profession and honorable individuals sought public office.
Somewhere along the way, however, that all changed.
It probably happened when honorable individuals learned that they could make more money in the private sector, causing their interest in public service to wane.
At that point, decent, principled individuals began to be replaced in public life by many who were unable to make an honest living in the private sector. Some of them found that they could buy influence with the power they exercised over others while some learned that they could make money by exercising that influence in the right (make that wrong) way.
Eventually, a sense of arrogance set in, the dishonest public officials slipped up and were caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
What is needed now is for honorable people to return to seeking elected office.
As Goodwin put it at Thornsbury’s recent sentencing hearing, “I’d like to see this whole episode be a call to action for all of us to make sure that this ‘Boss Hogg’ style of politics is a thing of the past - because it simply can’t be a part of our future.”
The people of Mingo County may be doomed, however, to a future filled with one tinhorn “Boss Hogg” after another in a county where politics has received such a black eye that honest, decent people no longer want to be associated with public service.
It may well be a case where corruption breeds corruption.
We can only hope not. Only time will tell.