By Ann Moore
CHARLESTON, West Virginia (Reuters) - A suspended judge pleaded guilty on Wednesday to covering up drug allegations against a West Virginia sheriff, the latest revelation in a public corruption scandal that has enveloped a small county in the coal-rich state.
Prosecutors had alleged that Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury worked with a county prosecutor, Michael Sparks, to protect the local sheriff from revelations he had bought drugs from a man who had made signs for his 2012 election campaign.
Prosecutors said that after denying payment requests by the signmaker, Sheriff Eugene Crum arranged for an informant to buy Oxycodone pills from the man. Crum secured an indictment to arrest him.
To prevent the signmaker from telling the FBI about drug allegations against Crum, prosecutors said Thornsbury, the county prosecutor and others offered him a lighter sentence if he fired his lawyer and hired one they preferred.
Thornsbury pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to charges of conspiracy and denying a defendant the right to an attorney of his choice. He faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced on January 13.
In exchange for the guilty plea, federal prosecutors dropped charges against him in a separate case in which Thornsbury was accused of trying to plant evidence on a former lover's husband and having him arrested for a crime he did not commit.
Sparks, the county prosecutor, is the target of an investigation by the state's Office of Disciplinary Counsel because of the drug allegations case. The West Virginia Supreme Court must rule on whether to suspend his law license.
Sheriff Crum was shot and killed in an unrelated incident in early April.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)