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Former Mingo prosecutor pleads guilty to charge

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The former prosecuting attorney of Mingo County told a judge Monday that he had "no viable defense" for his actions as part of a scheme to hinder a federal investigation into the county's former sheriff.

Michael Sparks, 44, pleaded guilty to one charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law, a misdemeanor. Sparks faces a maximum of one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 when U.S. District Judge Thomas Johnston sentences him Feb. 24.

Last month, former Mingo circuit judge Michael Thornsbury pleaded guilty to a similar charge for his role in the same scheme.

"Prosecutors are supposed to represent the interests of the people. They're supposed to stand up for the cause of justice," U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said outside the Robert C. Byrd U.S. District Courthouse after Sparks' plea.

"But, Mr. Sparks, instead of representing the interests of the people, instead of standing up for them, he rolled over for the special interests of a corrupt political faction," Goodwin said.

Sparks arrived hours before his 1:30 p.m. plea hearing. His wife, Jennifer, sat in the courtroom behind her husband and often wiped tears from her eyes.

About an hour after the hearing ended, Sparks walked quickly to a car that had pulled in front of the courthouse. He said he didn't want to comment about the hearing.

"He's looking forward to the next chapter," his attorney, Kent Varney, said after the hearing.

Sparks, who had served as Mingo County's prosecutor since 2005, deprived convicted drug dealer George White of his rights while trying to cover up allegations that Mingo County's former sheriff, Eugene Crum, illegally received prescription painkillers from White, according to federal prosecutors.

White owned a sign shop in Delbarton. Crum owed him about $3,000 for election campaign materials -- but instead of paying the bill, Crum had White arrested for selling drugs, federal prosecutors say.

White, with the help of lawyer Charles "Butch" West, then began talking to federal agents about giving prescription pain medication to Crum, according to prosecutors.

When Crum found out, he allegedly approached other officials -- including Sparks and former county commissioner David Baisden -- who devised a scheme to keep White quiet. Federal prosecutors say Sparks and others told White's brother that, if White switched lawyers and stopped talking to federal investigators, he would get a lighter sentence.

Thornsbury was told about the scheme and agreed with it, the former judge admitted at his plea hearing.

According to the charge against Sparks, White entered into a plea agreement offered by Sparks that dropped three of five charges and would allow his sentences to run at the same time, according to prosecutors. Also, Sparks reduced White's bail amount from $20,000 to $10,000, the charge states.

"Sparks did these acts knowing that a more favorable plea agreement for [White] was a necessary part of the scheme to coerce [White] into firing [his attorney] in order to protect the sheriff. Because Sparks was the county's prosecuting attorney, his cooperation in this regard was necessary to the scheme's success," wrote Assistant U.S. Attorneys Steve Ruby and Haley Bunn.

He resigned as prosecutor last month after federal prosecutors charged him in the form of an information, which cannot be filed without a defendant's consent and usually signals a defendant is cooperating with prosecutors. His resignation was included in the deal with prosecutors.

Sparks previously denied the allegations, when charges were filed against him by the West Virginia Lawyer Disciplinary Counsel. Also as part of his plea deal, he agreed to give up his law license for at least five years and to never seek or serve in public office again.

Thornsbury pleaded guilty last month to a felony -- conspiring to violate White's constitutional rights -- and resigned as judge. He faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced in January. Baisden, the former county commissioner, has pleaded guilty to an unrelated federal charge.

Sparks was allowed to leave on $10,000 unsecured bail and Johnston said he would allow Sparks to travel to eastern Kentucky, across the state line from Mingo County, for possible employment.

Moments before he entered the courtroom Monday, a process server handed Sparks a copy of a lawsuit filed last month in Kanawha Circuit Court by former private investigator Don Stevens, who says Mingo officials cooked up charges against him. Besides Sparks, Stevens is suing Thornsbury, former Williamson police chief Dave Rockel and others.

Stevens, who attended Sparks' plea hearing, claims in his lawsuit that he has a letter from federal prosecutors saying he had been the victim of a crime by Sparks.

Prosecutors wouldn't comment after Monday's hearing about Stevens. During the hearing, however, Ruby told the judge that Sparks' "conviction and final disposition will conclude any prosecution for conduct known to the United States at this time."

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


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