Judge sues Gazette, Mingo sheriff for 'libelous' article

By Chris Dickerson | Apr 15, 2010


WAYNE – A Mingo County circuit judge has sued the company that owns the Charleston Gazette as well as the Mingo County Sheriff over an article he says is libelous.

Judge Michael Thornsbury filed the suit April 13 in Wayne Circuit Court against Daily Gazette Company and Lonnie Hannah.

Thornsbury, the sole judge in Mingo County or the 30th Judicial Circuit, says a March 28 front page article in the Sunday Gazette-Mail headlined "Mingo sheriff questions UK tickets, tax break" is untrue.

The article, written by Charleston Gazette writer Paul J. Nyden, says the Mingo County Commission had approved $1,860 in county funds to purchase 60 University of Kentucky football game tickets for Thornsbury.

"According to the article, this information was obtained by from Lonnie Hannah," the complaint states, later quoting Hannah -- who is running for the county commission this spring -- as saying laws were violated. "The clear implication of the article was that the tickets were improperly purchased for the use of the plaintiff and that the plaintiff violated laws."

Thornsbury says he played "absolutely no role" in the purchase of the 60 tickets, which he says were bought for students in the Mingo County Upward Bound Program. The students went on a weekend tour in 2009 to visit Morehead State University and Berea College. They also attended the UK football game.

In the complaint, Thornsbury notes that the Mingo County Commission acts as the fiduciary agent for the Upward Bound Program and provides it with expense money and is reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Education, which Thornsbury says already has reimbursed.

"The plaintiff had no knowledge of the Upward Bound Program field trip until the article was published in the Sunday Gazette-Mail," Thornsbury says in the complaint.

Nyden's original article also mentioned the Mingo County Work Program, which Thornsbury says does community service projects such as trash pick-up. Criminal defendants ask permission to work on the program as a condition of probation and with the Day Report and Home Confinement program.

"The Mingo County Work Program has saved Mingo County millions of dollars over a period of 13 years," Thornsbury's complaint states. "(It) has been hailed as a model program for which the plaintiff has received numerous associated community service awards and for which Mingo County has received statewide recognition."

In the original Gazette-Mail article, Hannah is quoted as saying, "There are absolutely people on there (the work program) who haven't been convicted of a crime. But he (Thornsbury) put them on the work program."

Thornsbury again says that is incorrect.

The judge says he was out of town when Nyden tried to contact him two days before the story was published.

"After being contacted by members of the Mingo County Commission, Paul J. Nyden did not write a retraction or apology for the article," the complaint states. "Instead, Mr. Nyden wrote a second article titled 'Mingo official defends buying football tickets,' which was published in the Charleston Gazette at page 5A on Tuesday, March 30 ...

"The second article did not exonerate the plaintiff or less the libelous affects that the first article caused the plaintiff."

On March 30, the Williamson Daily News published a story headlined "MCC takes on Upward Bound report." In it, Hannah says he never mentioned Thornsbury to Nyden.

Later on March 30, Thornsbury says Commissioner Mark Hubbard talked to Nyden, who denied Hannah's comments to the Williamson Daily News.

"If (Hannah) did not mention (Thornsbury) in his interview with Paul J. Nyden, the article about the plaintiff was knowingly published with a reckless and willful disregard of the truth," the complaint states.

"The libelous article published by the defendant, Daily Gazette Company, defames the plaintiff and reflects shame, contumely and disgrace upon the plaintiff."

Thornsbury says that if Hannah did make comments about him to Nyden, then he is guilty of slander and was the direct cause of the libelous article.

The judge says he has been defamed, has suffered and will suffer damage to his character, reputation and integrity. He says it also could hurt his chances of winning future elections, including statewide office, thus a loss of future earning capacity. He also says he has suffered and will suffer mental and emotional distress.

He seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as attorney fees, expenses, court costs and pre- and post-judgment interest.

Neither Thornsbury nor Hannah were available for comment Thursday, and Nyden declined comment.

Thornsbury is represented by Huntington attorney Bert Ketchum. His case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Darrell Pratt.

Wayne Circuit Court case number: 10-C-74

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