By Rachel Dove
CHARLESTON - With the federal sentencing hearing for former Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney C. Michael Sparks scheduled for Monday, U.S. Attorney R. Booth Goodwin II has filed a memorandum in support of a motion for downward departure on Sparks’ behalf, noting the substantial assistance his testimony and cooperation played in the investigation of political corruption in Mingo County.
Sparks pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of depriving, under color of law, a defendant of his constitutional rights. The basic penalty for this violation is a maximum of one year in prison, a fine, or both. The charge stemmed from the case of George White, a defendant who was arrested on drug charges in Mingo County and was then offered a lesser sentence in exchange for firing his defense attorney, who had arranged for him to speak with federal investigators regarding information he had that could have incriminated former Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum. Sparks is said to have had knowledge of the scheme and allowed it to play through, although investigators say the role he played was minimal compared to others involved.
“Mr. Sparks has provided substantial assistance to the United States with the investigation of public corruption in Mingo County, in particular, in the investigation and prosecution of former circuit judge Michael Thornsbury,” Goodwin stated in the motion filed in U.S. District Court.
“Mr. Sparks was the first Mingo County elected official to agree to cooperate with investigators relating to the investigation of public corruption. At the request of federal investigators, Mr. Sparks voluntarily provided hundreds of pages of documentation relating to the investigation of Mr. Thornsbury. He also testified in the grand jury relating to the charges the United States brought against Mr. Thornsbury. When the United States confronted Mr. Thornsbury with the information provided by Mr. Sparks and others and further advised him that Mr. Sparks would testify against him at trial if called to do so, the thought of the former prosector’s credible testimony was a key factor in Mr. Thornsbury’s decision to plead guilty.
“In addition to the instrumental role Mr. Sparks played in bringing Mr. Thornsbury to justice, Mr. Sparks also provided broader assistance to federal investigators. He directed investigators to other witnesses who proved to be important to the United States’ investigation. He also provided extensive background information regarding political organizations and relationships in Mingo County - information that greatly aided the federal investigation.
“Based on the foregoing, the United States respectfully submits that Mr. Sparks’ assistance throughout the Mingo County public corruption investigation warrants a downward departure … which would reduce his offense level.”
Steven Ruby, the assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, had several comments to add to Goodwins’ remarks.
“The United States agreed to allow the defendant to plead guilty to a misdemeanor deprivation of rights. That decision was made only after long deliberation. This memorandum explains the United States’ reasoning,” Ruby stated.
“First, the defendant was an invaluable, insider witness who was the first member of his corrupt organization to cooperate with the government - providing, in other words, the kind of cooperation that must be encouraged if the government is to succeed in public corruption prosecutions. It is not uncommon, in fact, for witnesses situated similarly to the defendant to be immunized. Second, the defendant played a significantly lesser role in his organization than his co-conspirators, Michael Thornsbury and David Baisden. Third, the unusual statutory scheme in this area of law made the misdemeanor the only readily available avenue for the United States to recognize, in its charging decision, the value of the defendant’s cooperation.”
Ruby goes on to say that public corruption investigations are notoriously difficult to conduct because the members of a corrupt organization usually stand together in their refusal to cooperate with the authorities, shielding their misconduct with a wall of silence. A successful investigation generally requires witnesses with firsthand knowledge of corrupt acts - insiders.
In this case, Sparks provided the essential, initial crack in the wall.
As Mingo County’s prosecuting attorney, he was a member of a corrupt political organization that included Thornsbury and Baisden, and which, in the 2012 election campaign, dubbed itself “Team Mingo.” Ruby notes that, in the early stages of an investigation of Team Mingo, investigators approached Sparks seeking information. He responded to that overture with full cooperation, which he is said to continue to provide. Beyond this foundational information, the defendant also provided information and specific leads including, crucially, the lead that triggered the investigation of Thornsbury’s lawless persecution of a lover’s husband.
Ruby states that Sparks’ early, voluntary cooperation stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by his co-conspirators, Thornsbury and Baisden. Near the beginning of the investigation of Team Mingo, the United States invited both men, through counsel, to cooperate with its inquiry. Both refused, preferring to “circle the wagons” and protect their power base. Ruby says tha,t in fact, Sparks is the only Team Mingo insider to cooperate with the investigation before being presented with evidence of his own guilt. Thornsbury and Basiden cooperated only after they were indicted, by which time prosecutors already possessed much of the information that those defendants might have initially offered.
The memorandum from Ruby states that, in many investigations, a grant of immunity is required to gain the aid of an initial cooperating insider, but Sparks did not request immunity before he cooperated, unlike several others who were named as assisting the former judge of his devious plans. The United States considered strongly whether to decline to prosecute him at all, but ultimately decided that his conduct - which is condemnable despite his assistance in the investigation - demanded punishment.
Ruby notes that although punishment is required here, a balance must be struck. For the sake of future corruption investigations, he stated that it is important to demonstrate that insiders like Sparks benefit when they cooperate with the authorities early and completely.