From corrupt politicians to drug trafficking, the legal adventures of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia are many.
Booth Goodwin and his staff work in an office tucked away in the federal courthouse in Charleston, behind massive stone walls and a security checkpoint. Visitors aren’t permitted to bring cell phones or computers inside. The morning I interviewed Goodwin, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia, and Steve Ruby, who serves as counsel to the U.S. Attorney, I took notes longhand on a legal pad; it took me the rest of the afternoon to transcribe them on my computer. Goodwin says his wife, Amy Shuler Goodwin, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s communications director and a former broadcast news reporter, jokes the press can never get any interesting footage on the U.S. Attorney because they can’t bring cameras to his office.
Suffice it to say the public doesn’t know much about what goes on there, or about what, precisely, Goodwin does, though there’s a vague sense it’s something good. The run-of-the-mill press releases coming out of his office are grim, but ultimately positive—the bad guys are behind bars: “Huntington men sent to federal prison for trafficking Detroit heroin,” or “Cross Lanes pedophile sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.” The less run-of-the-mill releases are even bigger news about federal investigations: “Goodwin announces former Massey executive sentenced to 42 months in prison for federal mine safety violations,” or “Former Mingo County commissioner sentenced to federal prison for extortion.”
That last release is just one of a string of them coming out of Goodwin’s office lately on a massive corruption probe in Mingo County. So far he’s nailed at least four public officials on charges ranging from extortion to election fraud, and we’re still waiting to understand the extent of the corruption that has been clouding the political landscape in Mingo. “There’s that saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Goodwin says. “Where there is a place where there is absolute power you see it corrupt those government officials in an absolute way. That’s what we saw in Mingo County, back to the Boss Hog kind of era in politics.”
Peeling Back Layers
The indictments started coming in August of last year. First it was Michael Thornsbury, a long-standing and well-known circuit court judge. The first indictment of Thornsbury reads like a parody of a small-town corruption scandal. It’s filled with headings that sound almost comical—“The Romantic Relationship,” “The Scheme to Plant Drugs on R.W.’s Pick-up Truck,” “The State Grand Jury Scheme”—and the narrative is absurd. Thornsbury was charged with a bizarre series of crimes, all in pursuit of revenge against the husband of his secretary and former mistress. His multi-pronged attack included attempts to plant drugs on the man and, when that didn’t work, to pressure a state police officer to report him for stealing scrap metal—a false charge that resulted in his arrest for grand larceny. There were also fake subpoenas and trumped up charges of assault and battery. And there was a county commissioner who, in an unrelated incident, was charged with extortion—he tried to use his position to coerce his way to a discount on tires.
Since that first indictment it’s become clear Mingo County’s politics are woven into a web of corruption. “We really started peeling back the layers,” Goodwin says. Even more serious charges have been filed in recent months, against Thornsbury and a cast of Mingo County politicos. The picture includes a once lauded sheriff who, last year, was shot dead in his police car in broad daylight—now he’s said to have been buying drugs from the same dealers he proclaimed to be cracking down on. In an effort to save Sheriff Eugene Crum from embarrassment and prosecution, Thornsbury and the county commissioner, David Baisden, conspired with the county’s prosecuting attorney, Michael Sparks, to press an FBI witness to fire his attorney and stop ratting Crum out to FBI agents. Plus there’s Dallas Toler who, while chief magistrate for the county, registered a convicted felon to vote.
“There are a lot of things that seem unsavory, that are unsavory, but don’t amount to a federal crime. We take all that is all true and that we can prove and try to prosecute using that.” Booth Goodwin
The Path to Prosecution
“The investigation is more or less a living thing,” Goodwin says. “Something can shake something else loose. It builds on itself.” The U.S. Attorney’s office, along with the FBI and the state police, spent months digging through files and interviewing witnesses before they filed those first indictments about the lovers’ quarrel and the tire discount (it turns out a lot of what goes on inside the U.S. Attorney’s office involves digging through files—the path to prosecution is paved with paperwork), but once they went public with the case they were hit with a deluge of information. “Once you file charges it opens the floodgates,” Ruby says. “We were inundated with calls from people about alleged wrongdoing. Most of the people in Mingo County are honorable people who want good government. When they realize something is happening, that we’re serious about proving it, people who may have had information all along all of a sudden are interested in talking about it.”
Then they have to dig through all of that information. Southern West Virginia is no stranger to government scandals or corruption—stories of votes bought for a jug of moonshine and crooked officials of all stripes have run rampant over the years—and that complicates things. In 2003 State Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry published the definitive book on political corruption in West Virginia, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide. In it, he argues that corruption is a systemic problem in West Virginia politics, especially in the southern part of the state, and that such corruption has jaded generations of voters. “West Virginia’s political history is the stuff of legend and mythology,” he writes. “And unfortunately continues to create plenty of new fables on a seemingly daily basis.” Federal investigators saw echoes of that in Mingo County: The people there have been touched by corruption before. Everyone has an opinion on it, many believe they’ve witnessed it firsthand, and some definitely have. The challenge comes in figuring out who’s who.
“It comes down to having the discipline to stick to the best leads you have,” Ruby says. “The federal government is very big, but no matter who you are it’s never not difficult to investigate these cases. There’s always going to be more crimes than we can investigate.” Mingo County pulses with rumors about corrupt and unsavory behavior, and the U.S. Attorney’s office heard many of the same rumors everybody else did. The trick is knowing when to take them seriously. “We get calls all the time from people about something a public official has done that certainly runs afoul of the golden rule,” Ruby says. “But it’s not always something that constitutes a federal crime.”
Goodwin likens the process to a funnel. They take the flood of gossip and rumors and narrow it down to a more manageable flow that includes only accusations from credible sources. From there they eliminate anything that isn’t a crime, and a federal crime to boot. And then they set out to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. “There are a lot of things that seem unsavory, that are unsavory, but don’t amount to a federal crime,” he says. “We take all that is all true and that we can prove and try to prosecute using that.
“Take for instance the extortion scheme involving the tires,” he says. “We had the evidence and the witness to show he had committed that extortion scheme. Even while it was for a relatively small amount of money, it was something we could prove. It takes a level of discipline to stick to that one small thing, but as is clear now, he was involved in more than that extortion scheme.” In the rush of information after the first round of investigations, they found that the county commissioner at the center of the tire scheme also played a role in the plot to suppress an FBI witness to cover for the sheriff.
Goodwin’s first investigation into government corruption was years ago, when he was still in his role as assistant U.S. attorney—he still speaks of it like a proud father. That case ended with the mayor of Logan posing as a candidate for the House of Delegates, buying votes, and implicating a slew of dirty politicos in the process. But it started with one small piece of information: A shoplifter mumbled something to a young sheriff about a friend who was about to buy his way out of prison. That’s how it is in just about every case, Goodwin says. It starts with one morsel of information that tips off investigators and grows from there. “Often it’s such a small nugget of information,” he says. “There’s that one feather on the scale that tips it.”
“There’s a reason the most successful television shows are about these kinds of things,” Goodwin says. “It’s interesting, compelling stuff. It’s at the very base of human nature.”
He won’t say what the feather was in Mingo County because the case is still active. Ruby won’t either, even though the Mingo County case is to Ruby what Logan County’s was to Goodwin, and it kills him that he can’t tell everyone all about it all of the time. He likens the work they do to the cop work on The Wire, the hit television show about Baltimore’s drug scene, except Goodwin’s team has to deal with a lot more paperwork. “There’s a reason the most successful television shows are about these kinds of things,” Goodwin says. “It’s interesting, compelling stuff. It’s at the very base of human nature.”
Ask Goodwin why he likes his job, and he’ll talk a lot about the importance of public service and justice. “It’s the ability to make a real difference in people’s lives, day in and day out,” he says. “It’s being able to make that actual impact every day you go to work. You have the ability to concretely affect people’s lives.” Ruby is just as noble. “One of the bedrock principles of American society is that we are a society that has a commitment to justice,” he says. “I think over the long arc of history, we’ve never quite lost sight of that. It is personally and professionally a really satisfying thing to be a part of.”
Those sound like platitudes, but it’s hard not to believe they’re sincere—these are men who have committed their professional lives to a system that tries to right wrongs. Goodwin chose this in lieu of a career as a politician, what he figured he’d end up doing for most of his young life—no surprise, given the long affiliation with state politics that is the legacy of the Goodwin family.
Goodwin’s father, Joe Bob Goodwin, is a federal district court judge and former chairman of the state democratic party. His mother, Kay, is the head of the state Department of Education and the Arts. His cousin, Carte, briefly served as a U.S. senator. His uncle, Tom, was a top official in Senator Jay Rockefeller’s administration when he was governor of West Virginia. This whole branch of the Goodwin family is descended from Robert B. Goodwin, who was elected to the House of Delegates in 1932 before opening the law firm Goodwin and Goodwin—still a successful firm in the state. And that’s just the beginning—the connections are too numerous to list in full.
Tilling the Garden
In Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide, Loughry writes about the effect embedded corruption has on a community. “As citizens hear continuous negative stories about their elected officials, those instances of corrupt activities, perceptively corrupt activities, and even inauspicious or questionable behaviors are intertwined whether actually corrupt or not,” he writes. “It becomes just another string in a big ball of yarn, and once trust in government is lost it can be enormously difficult to recover.”
That’s what Goodwin and his staff is trying to do—recover trust. “It would be very easy for the people there to throw up their hands because they’ve seen this all before; it would be easy for them to give up on the government process entirely,” Goodwin says. “But in fact this is when they should be digging in.” When asked how important prosecution is to combating government corruption, he hedged a little—nobody thinks jail time alone will cure southern West Virginia of its problem with corruption—but ultimately he believes in it. “We can’t be there every day and they don’t want us to be there every day,” he says. “But I will often analogize it to a garden—we weed it, we till it, but we aren’t the ones and cannot be the ones who plant the seeds, water it, and make it grow.” There probably still is, and probably always will be, corruption in West Virginia, just as there is in many places. But things like outright vote buying are now practically extinct, and Goodwin sees that as a small victory. “There’s no silver bullet,” he says. “But I think what we do is helping.”
Written by Shay Maunz
Photographed by Tom Hindman