by Ron Gregory
Charleston – A public official that State Senator Richard Ojeda has feuded
with and claimed as part of the senator’s campaign to “clean up corruption
in Logan County,” has received only a public reprimand from the state
Judicial Investigation Commission. In doing so, the commission said the
judge’s actions did not merit any type of formal discipline.
Logan Chief Circuit Judge Eric O’Briant’s long tenure as a jurist, which
the commission acknowledged included being a “respected judge for 30
years,” contributed to the decision announced July 5. The ruling came on a
7-0 commission vote. It was signed by commission chair Ronald Wilson, a
Hancock County circuit judge.
In reviewing a case in which Ojeda maintained O’Briant used his position to
further the practice of law by a relative, the commission noted that the
judge’s relationship to Joshua T. Thompson did not fall under the practical
definition of nepotism. That relationship is described as one in which the
judge’s daughter, Shana O’Briant Thompson’s husband’s cousin in Joshua
Thompson. Shana Thompson is also an assistant Logan prosecutor.
The commission decision says the Code of Judicial Conduct defines nepotism
as “the appointment or hiring of any relative within the third degree of
relationship of either the judge or the judge’s spouse or domestic partner
or the spouse or domestic partner of such relative.” It goes on to say that
third degree relationship, by definition includes “’great-grandparent,
grandparent, parent, uncle, aunt, brother, sister, child, grandchild,
great-grandchild, nephew and niece.’ It does not include cousins.’”
Ojeda, who is now a candidate for Third District Congress, has campaigned
on his alleged ability to “clean up corruption” in his home county.
O’Briant is one regularly referred to by Ojeda supporters as among those
who the senator has helped investigate. A claim by Ojeda that O’Briant was
improperly in magistrate court looking through files after hours was
rejected. The judge explained that he had security clearance to be in
magistrate court after hours and was simply looking for cases in response
to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by Ojeda crony, Chris
The commission found that O’Briant became a judge on April 20, 1987 and has
served continuously since. Thompson graduated from the University of
Connecticut School of Law in 2016. He plans to take the West Virginia state
bar exam this month. Since late August or early September 2016, Thompson
“continuously worked as a paralegal at the Logan … law firm of Wolfe,
& Associates,” the commission wrote.
In September 2016, O’Briant entered an order which gave Thompson permission
to represent clients in Logan magistrate court. He was required to be
supervised by either Stephen B. Wolfe or J. Christopher White, attorneys
with the law firm. O’Briant’s order declared that the judge had the power
to grant Thompson the authority to practice as prescribed in the state
constitution and West Virginia code.
According to the commission, the sections cited by the judge did not give
him authority to appoint Thompson under the circumstances. Nevertheless,
Thompson “spent the next three months appearing in Logan magistrate court
representing defendants in criminal cases. Attorney Wolfe was present for
the majority of the proceedings. However, on at least two occasions, Mr.
Thompson appeared in court by himself and represented individuals in plea
The commission said Thompson also “inappropriately signed pleadings as an
attorney.” Two cases were cited in which Thompson signed motions for
WOWK-TV in Huntington interviewed one of those identified as a defendant
represented by Thompson. Beth Earnest, the identified client, said Thompson
had told her he was representing her and her case had been continued. “I
had no clue I even had a court date,” she told the television station. This
and other reports by media have included clips of Stratton defining state
laws although he is not a licensed attorney.
On December 5, 2016, the judge entered an order retracting Thompson’s
permission to represent clients in magistrate court. In the order, O’Briant
noted that his earlier decree was based on a “misinterpretation of the
On that same day, Teresa Tarr, counsel for the commission, contacted
O’Briant by telephone to tell him she believed his September order was
improper. She told him if he entered an order December 5 countermanding the
September order, she would not file an ethics complaint against him. She
added, according to the commission, that if a member of the public filed
such a complaint, “it would be investigated and the commission would be
free to take whatever action it deemed appropriate.” She subsequently sent
an email containing the same information to the judge.
Stratton has said on social media that he has advised the defendants, which
he seemed to imply were more than just the two identified by the
commission, to obtain attorneys to sue for what Ojeda has claimed is a
miscarriage of justice. O’Briant told the commission that he asked Wolfe
and White to notify clients that Thompson could not represent them.
Ojeda filed his complaint on April 21.
The senator, who ran as a Democrat in 2016 on a platform of transparency
and accountability, already had fallen out with O’Briant and his daughter,
As part of his campaign as the “little guy taking on the establishment,”
Ojeda maintained that he planned to sue Shana Thompson over allegations
that she improperly released copies of his tax information to his political
opponents. At the time, Shana Thompson was an attorney for the county board
of education, where Ojeda was employed as a junior ROTC instructor.
Judge O’Briant was initially assigned to the criminal trial of a man
accused of attacking Ojeda at a political event just before the election in
which Ojeda defeated incumbent Senator Art Kirkendoll. O’Briant and the
county’s other circuit judges eventually recused themselves from that case,
leading to the appointment of Kanawha County Judge Duke Bloom as special
judge in the case.
Since his election, Ojeda has appeared on various media outlets claiming he
“uncovered corruption in Logan County.” An earlier television segment
accused Kirkendoll of violating various ethics laws. No formal charges have
ever been announced against the ex-senator.
O’Briant has 14 days from the date of the order to decide whether to
contest it. Although the judge was not available late this week, an
associate said “I think he will probably accept it and has already moved