Commission seat not affected by charge

Fry: Indictment alone would not impact position

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — A felony indictment pending against Mark A. Thomas in West Virginia that is related to his private law practice will have no impact on his elected position as a Belmont County commissioner unless he is convicted.

Thomas pleaded innocent Friday in Ohio County Circuit Court, where a grand jury had indicted him on a charge of embezzlement by fiduciary. Thomas is accused of misappropriating $36,000 from the estate of a deceased client of his private law practice. West Virginia State Police troopers conducted an investigation and presented their findings on Jan. 8. According to the indictment, the alleged embezzlement involved the estate of Dolores Anast in October 2014. The complaint was made by Joanna Gusta, executrix of the estate.

Belmont County Prosecutor Dan Fry on Friday said Thomas’ indictment alone would not impact his job as a commissioner.

“The indictment as alleged does not impact him serving as a commissioner because it does not make allegations to his official duties,” Fry said. “It’s strictly a private practice matter, as far as I can tell.”

Fry noted, however, that any public official who is convicted of a felony theft is no longer allowed to serve in any elected position in the state of Ohio. If Thomas were to be convicted of felony theft, Fry said, the courts would have Thomas removed from the commissioner position if he did not voluntarily step down.

Ohio Revised Code addresses “theft in office,” but in Thomas’ case this law would not apply because the allegation against him does not involve any public money from the county or the state of Ohio; it involves only his private business and a client.

Dan Tierney, spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, said he could not speak to specific cases, but noted state law typically applies to someone who has committed a felony related to their office. He said he could not comment on what would happen to an official if they committed an offense in another state.

He added that most of the time a person is removed from office following a conviction “if related to the administration of a person’s position.” However, elected officials can challenge a suspension, which sometimes can take months to resolve in court, Tierney added.

In the case of a county commissioner, Tierney believes the decision about whether to have the official removed from office would be initiated at the county level.

Belmont County Commissioners Josh Meyer and J.P. Dutton both declined to comment for this report, referring questions to Fry.

Thomas, via email, declined to comment on specifics of the case.

“While I take this matter very seriously, I have been accused of a crime. I have not had the opportunity to see the evidence, present my evidence, call witnesses and I have not had the opportunity to see the evidence or to speak with my lawyer about all of it,” Thomas wrote in the email. “Therefore, there is and cannot be any comment at this time.”

Thomas is being represented by attorney Paul Harris, who filed a motion to dismiss the indictment that was denied by Ohio County Circuit Judge James Mazzone. The motion argued that Thomas should have been charged with a misdemeanor, not a felony, under West Virginia code, and that the indictment contained language inconsistent with the statute under which he was charged.

Tyler County Prosecutor D. Luke Furbee is serving as special prosecutor in the case.