Charleston, SC — Over the last year as a correspondent for CJR’s United States Project covering four states in the Southeast, I examined how local media outlets covered stories ranging from small-town public corruption in West Virginia to the roots of the government shutdown in North Carolina. In Virginia, the governor is leaving under a cloud of ethics woes that I hope, moving forward, can be an opportunity for in-depth coverage of ethics reform. In South Carolina, the newspaper The State embarked on an ambitious series it’s calling “State House for Sale.” But those are just a few.
As we move into 2014, here’s a look back at some of the issues we examined over the past year and an update on where they stand now.
Gambling and politics in North Carolina
Back in May, I interviewed Associated Press reporters Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss, who were churning out enterprising tales about dubious Internet gambling operators flexing their political muscle―and donating more campaign money than anyone else in North Carolina―in an attempt to shape public policy. The news settled down after the spring, but on Dec. 27 Biesecker was back with a piece that offered new details about efforts to influence state politicians.
From “Oklahoma AG: Checks to NC politicians came from illegal gambling,” published in The Charlotte Observer:
A checking account used last year to make $235,000 in donations to the campaigns of dozens of North Carolina politicians contained the laundered proceeds of a criminal gambling enterprise, according to Oklahoma’s top law enforcement official.
The political donations were drawn from one of several accounts tied to sweepstakes game provider Chase E. Burns of Anadarko, Okla., who in September pleaded no contest in Florida to two criminal counts of assisting in the operation of a lottery. As part of a plea deal, prosecutors dropped 205 felony counts against Burns, including racketeering and money laundering charges. He is awaiting sentencing.
Biesecker further reported that Oklahoma’s attorney general, Scott Pruitt, last month finished up an agreement that will lead Burns to forfeit up $3.5 million from bank accounts seized as part of the investigation. “According to Pruitt, the money came directly from the ‘laundered proceeds’ of Burns’ sweepstakes software company, International Internet Technologies,” Biesecker wrote, adding that an AP review of court filings show “$1 million of that forfeited money came from a checking account in the name of the Chase Burns Trust - the same account used to send political donations to the campaigns of North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, state House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger, among others.”
Whatever happened in “Corruption County”?
Last spring I wrote about a small West Virginia newspaper’s spat with a TV station in Charleston, the state capital, after the station used anonymous sources to report on an a pending indictment of a powerful local judge in rural Mingo County. An editorial in the Williamson Daily News called the TV report “irresponsible at best, defamation at worst.”
Three months later, the TV station felt vindicated when the judge was indicted.
Where are the players now? Well, the indictment of judge Michael Thornsbury was just the beginning, as the saga unraveled throughout the summer into one of the most egregious examples of small-town public corruption in 2013. From an August story in The Charleston Gazette:
Prosecutors allege Thornsbury, the county’s only circuit judge, put his business partner in charge of a Mingo grand jury as foreman, plotted to plant drugs on Robert Woodruff and tried to get the man sent to jail.
Thornsbury, a Democrat, “persecuted his secretary’s husband, his romantic rival” and used the justice system for his own “nefarious purpose,” Booth Goodwin, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, said in a Thursday news conference.
Corruption is something of a tradition in Mingo, a coal mining county that is home to less than 30,000 people and located along West Virginia’s border with Kentucky. In the late 1980s, more than 50 Mingo residents who held government jobs were arrested for various illegal activities, including bribery, arson, and drug dealing. Because of this unique history, the locals have a special term for the corrupt political machinery there. It’s a name investigators are using once again to describe Thornsbury and his associates—the “courthouse gang.”
Federal investigators say Thornsbury is now cooperating with them “and giving them information concerning other elected officials”—according to a late December article in the Williamson Daily News.
How did the “State House for Sale” series pan out?