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A West Virginia TV station sees "a measure of vindication" after two officials are indicted

CHARLESTON, SC — Last Thursday, folks in the newsroom at WCHS, an ABC affiliate in Charleston, WV, were feeling pretty good. Indictments had just come down against two public officials the station had named in a May broadcast, citing anonymous sources, as targets of a state and federal investigation. One employee even used the word “relieved”—though not everyone at the station agrees that’s the best way to characterize the mood.

That spring broadcast led to a public spat between WCHS, located in the state capital, and the editorial board of a local newspaper in Mingo County, tucked amid coal country in the state’s southwest corner. The Williamson Daily News had attacked WCHS—though it didn’t name the station—in an editorial that accused the out-of-town TV media of coverage that was “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.” (A link to the editorial on the paper’s website is broken, but you can read much of it in my May post for CJR.) The newspaper’s ire focused on the station’s use of anonymous sources in the May 20 segment, in which reporter Kallie Cart said FBI and state police were looking into “alleged election violations” and “other possible federal crimes” by local public officials. WCHS named as targets of the investigation Michael Thornsbury, Mingo County’s only judge, and David Baisden, a county commissioner. Indictments were “expected soon,” Cart reported.

The wait turned out to be nearly three months. But late last week, those federal indictments came down against both men.

“There is a measure of vindication in this for us,” the station’s news director Matt Snyder told me. “As you know, our initial story received some backlash, so it’s always a good day when the facts come to light.”

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, Judge Thornsbury is accused of a complex and ultimately unsuccessful scheme to frame a romantic rival by planting drugs on the man, among other shenanigans, and manipulating a grand jury to have him put behind bars. “Prosecutors say Thornsbury was having an affair with his secretary when she tried to end it. He tried to frame her husband to eliminate the competition,” The Associated Press reported. Thornsbury has been charged with conspiring to violate the husband’s constitutional rights. (The salacious details of the judge’s alleged conspiracy really are something when it comes to low-rent local corruption, and I urge everyone to read this account in The Charleston Gazette by Kate White, Ken Ward Jr., and Rusty Marks. The story would make for a great made-for-TV movie, which could even include a prologue about Thornsbury’s shady refusal to recuse himself from hearing a major pollution case against a coal company he had ties to, until the state Supreme Court ordered him to step down.)

For his part, Baisden the commissioner is charged with the more prosaic offense of allegedly “attempting to use his authority to persuade a store to give him a discount on tires for his personal automobile,” according to the Charleston Daily Mail. When the store didn’t play ball, the politician, who is also the county’s purchasing agent, allegedly ended the store’s government contract, costing it tens of thousands of dollars. The allegations are unrelated to the charges against the judge.

Back in May, when WCHS aired its original broadcast on the investigation against the two men, reporters for the Daily News were chasing the story too. But the paper wasn’t willing to run with anonymous sources discussing charges that hadn’t yet been filed against people in its home community, an editor told me. “[I]t’s easy for television media [in Charleston] to jump the gun on a potential big story,” the paper’s May editorial read. “They won’t see those that they’ve unjustly attacked at the grocery store or at a youth baseball game … We want what’s best for our community and right now, what’s best, is not to perpetuate rumors.”

The station stood by its story in the face of that criticism. Here’s what I wrote about the back-and-forth at the time:

And, obviously, dealing carefully with anonymous sources can be tricky. You have to make sure they’re not giving you bad info to push an agenda, or echoing a common flawed data point. And if the WCHS story turns out to be wrong―if those indictments don’t come to pass―the station will owe its readers and the subjects of its reporting an accounting of why it got and relayed bad information.

But a serious investigation of prominent public officials, with indictments imminent, is a newsworthy story. And anonymous sources can be a legitimate reporting tool, used carefully. Was WCHS right to have confidence in the credibility of its information? At this point it’s impossible to say from the outside; the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

So how’s that pudding taste? Well, neither indictment against Thornsbury or Baisden makes any mention of the “alleged election violations” mentioned in the original WCHS report. But both men do now stand accused of “other possible federal crimes.”

Over the last few days I reached out again to contacts at both news outlets. Joshua Byers, the regional editor for Civitas Media, which owns the Williamson Daily News, declined to comment for this piece. He wasn’t happy about my original post in May. (He was, however, nice enough to provide us, unsolicited, the photo of Thornsbury after his arraignment that appears on the homepage.)

Those at WCHS, as you might imagine, were happy to talk. Here’s what they had to say.

News director Matt Snyder:

I overheard somebody use the word “relieved” to describe our feeling … probably not the best word to use because this infers that there was some doubt about our initial report. We didn’t have any doubt at that time; we wouldn’t have done the story otherwise … in fact, even if the events of yesterday never came to pass, and we were having this same conversation, we would still be confident of our reporting that day. After all, we are talking about public officials here, and you never know what kind of deals are struck in the proverbial smoke filled back room.

Reporter Kennie Bass:

As a staff we had known for some time that indictments were in the air, but we had been unable to confirm that information. Ultimately, Kallie trusted her sources and our editorial team trusted her. Although it was more high-profile than normal, it was a perfect example of what happens here on a daily basis. Investigations are interesting things, they can take unexpected turns. So while no election law violations were mentioned in the two indictments, I’m not certain this case is finished.

Weekend anchor and reporter Kallie Cart:

I do not believe this story is over, the investigation is continuing. We did report “soon” initially, and I was anticipating a month or so rather than nearly three months. However, we all know how investigations work and the grand jury continued to meet regarding this case—and in a case of this magnitude and so much opportunity for fallout, I think the federal attorneys handling the case wanted to ensure their facts were concrete before moving forward. From my understanding, the scope of the investigation stretched beyond what is listed in the indictments, as is the case in many investigations, and they had a lot of information to sort through.

I asked if anyone at the station worried the May broadcast might have jeopardized the investigation, or if they’d gotten any blowback from law enforcement about it. They said they hadn’t. “From the law enforcement community, we did not receive any backlash for our report and we maintain strong, if not stronger, relationships with those involved,” Cart told me.

For its part, the Williamson Daily News did acknowledge its dispute with the station in a new editorial published following the arrests. “Three months ago, we argued it was too soon to name names of those who were perceived to be under federal investigation,” it reads. “We argued that until indictments came down, we would not name those in a thinly veiled attempt to gain readership. Today, we appreciate the due diligence of our justice system and the countless hours law enforcement spent on the investigation.

“It’s also today, that we urge those public officials named in the indictments to step down in the best interest of our community,” it concludes.

Where does the story go next?

The dispute over the proper way to cover the investigation, and the measure of vindication for WCHS, was interesting. But for journalists in West Virginia, the next challenge will be how to advance this story—both about the particulars of this case and about the broader political culture in the area.

For example, the Gazette’s Ken Ward raised on Twitter a question that hasn’t been tackled in the coverage yet, as far as I can see: If the charges against Thornsbury are true, why did no one step in sooner?

It’s not as if Thornsbury’s plotting was unknown to people in positions of responsibility. According to the indictments, the judge’s plan to frame his secretary’s husband involved a law enforcement officer who was once named state trooper of the year and a county emergency services director. Neither is being charged, though the state trooper has been put on leave. (Thornsbury has also been suspended from the bench without pay by the state Supreme Court.)

Ward has also raised some other interesting angles. Allegations about Thornsbury using his office to persecute a lover’s husband comes soon after a sheriff of a nearby county was charged with illegally wiretapping his ex-wife. Given these two cases, “involving men in positions of power, is it any wonder violence against women is such a big problem in WV?” the reporter asked on Twitter.

More narrowly, there’s the question of whether any other charges will come from the current probe. In announcing the indictments, the U.S. attorney for the state said, “the investigation into Mingo County corruption is ongoing.”

The charges that have already been filed suggest the county’s long experience of public corruption is not yet history. That means reporters in this part of West Virginia—or in the state capital—have a target-rich environment for some serious muckraking and accountability reporting. Here’s hoping we see more of it.

Homepage photo courtesy of the Williamson Daily News.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected]. Tags: , , ,