Former Mingo sheriff accuses official of defamation

By Chris Dickerson | Apr 15, 2015

CHARLESTON – The former sheriff of Mingo County has sued a political rival, accusing him of defaming his reputation right before the 2014 primary election.

On May 9, Greg Smith and Smith Law Offices filed a complaint with the West Virginia Secretary of State falsely accusing Lonnie Hannah of criminal conduct, listing numerous untrue, false and misleading statements, according to a complaint filed last month in Kanawha Circuit Court.

Hannah, who previously was sheriff, claims Smith's complaint was filed to slander and defame him and to falsely accuse him of criminal conduct. Hannah was running for county commission against Smith. Both are Democrats, and there were no Republicans on the ballot. So the primary election essentially was the election for county commission.

The election complaint was also willfully and intentionally filed to spread false rumors throughout southern West Virginia alleging that Hannah was engaging in criminal conduct that that the voters should reject him as a candidate for the office of Mingo County Commissioner and encouraging voters to nominate Smith due to the fact that he was Hannah's only opponent, according to the suit.

In his May 9, 2014, letter to the Secretary of State, Smith said Hannah had been driving residents to the polls and paying them with checks or steak dinners. He said Hannah and his supporters had rented a van and "have been hauling individuals all week to early voting" and "providing the individuals riding the van with $50.00 checks from his campaign committee or, in the alternative, driving said individuals to my opponent’s family-owned restaurant for a steak dinner after they vote."

In his letter, Smith also said Hannah purchased billboard space for a political ally running for magistrate.

Corruption in Mingo County is nothing new.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations said former Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury, former Sheriff Eugene Crum and county prosecuting attorney Michael Sparks were part of the alliance that used their authority to serve their own interests rather than those of the citizens who elected them. The three men adopted the campaign slogan “Team Mingo” to promote their political slate.

“These men essentially ran the county’s legal system,” FBI Special Agent Jim Lafferty said, and he called Thornsbury the ring leader. They didn’t like anyone who tried to oppose them. If you were an attorney or an individual who wanted to get a fair shake in the court system, you had to play whatever game they wanted you to play. It was a toxic environment.”

The FBI opened the case in September 2012 and Lafferty and retired Special Agent Joe Ciccarelli uncovered evidence that Thornsbury, Crum – who had formerly been the county’s chief magistrate judge – and Sparks had been engaging in corrupt activities.

Specifically, the judge coerced a local drug defendant into firing his defense counsel because Thornsbury and other “Team Mingo” officials, including former County Commissioner David Baisden, learned that the drug defendant was prepared to testify that Crum had illegally received prescription pain medication and obtained unlawful campaign contributions.

To protect Crum, Thornsbury and his colleagues pressured the defendant into firing his defense attorney and replacing him with another attorney handpicked by Team Mingo.

After switching lawyers and pleading guilty to lesser charges, the defendant dropped his allegations against Crum and was sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

Thornsbury was later charged with trying to frame the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair and trying to have drugs planted in the husband’s car. He also planned to have the man arrested for stealing scrap metal when the drug plan failed.

In June, Thornsbury was sent to prison for more than four years for denying residents their constitutional rights.

Sparks was recently sentenced to a year in prison for his role in Team Mingo’s illegal activities.

Crum was murdered shortly after taking over as sheriff in 2013. Earlier this month, his wife filed a separate lawsuit alleging Mingo County officials – including Smith – promised to pay for her husband's funeral costs, but failed to do so.

Others previously jailed as a result of the corruption probe include Baisden, sentenced in January 2014 to 20 months’ imprisonment, and former Mingo County chief magistrate Dallas Toler, sentenced in March 2014 to 27 months in prison.

In his complint, Hannah claims the defendants' actions were willful, wanton, intentional, reckless, deliberate and done for sinister reasons all in an attempt to slander and defame him.

The defendant deliberately distributed the complaint in Kanawha County, where it was widely circulated on TV, radio, newsprint and other media throughout southern West Virginia, according to the suit.

Hannah claims Smith's intentional and criminal actions were so egregious and so damaging to him that he lost the primary election by only 38 votes.

As a direct result of the defendants' defamatory statements, Hannah was greatly injured by losing the election, his reputation has been damaged and he has been deprived of substantial gains and profits, according to the suit.

Hannah claims the defamatory allegations that the defendants circulated and caused great injury to him and his reputation.

Hannah is seeking compensatory damages. He is being represented by Letitia Neese Chafin of the H. Truman Chafin Law Firm PLLC.

Kanawha Circuit Court case number: 15-C-402

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