Courthouse News Service
Thursday, February 12, 2015
(CN) – The disgraced former prosecutor for Mingo County, West Virginia pressed bogus child abuse charges against a special education teacher so his wife could get her job, the aggrieved educator claims in court.
The prosecutor in question, C. Michael Sparks, is currently in prison having pleaded guilty to participating in a scheme to cover up evidence of illegal drug use and other misconduct by a now deceased former county sheriff.
In a complaint filed in the Charleston, West Va., Federal Court, Tina Grace says she was called into a meeting with the Mingo County superintendent of schools on Sept. 23, 2011, and confronted with allegations that she had been abusing special needs students.
Afterwards, and as required by law, the superintendent called the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and reported the alleged abuse, thereby initiating an investigation of the matter by the state.
Grace was then suspended, with pay, for the duration of the inquiry, the complaint says.
As described in the court documents, two people providing the most negative information about Grace to investigators — C. Michael Sparks and his wife, Jennifer Sparks — who are alleged to have said she routinely bullied and belittled children in her care.
“Defendant Sparks’ wife … was the only teacher to provide critical comments about Tina Grace saying she had twisted a child’s cheeks, was not nice to kids, mentioning aides had complained about her disciplinary methods and also discussing those same incidents of some two years earlier involving a balancing device known as the ‘turtle’ and the use of hot sauce for disciplining an unruly child,” the complaint says.
Grace says Sparks’ motive was clear – she had two children in the school in which both she and Grace worked, but she also had the least seniority of any special education teacher there, meaning an impending consolidation of schools would likely result in her losing her job.
In addition, Grace says, she and Jennifer Sparks “had engaged in several verbal disagreements in recent years over various matters, including one where Mrs. Grace had replied something to the effect her coal miner husband was smarter than Sparks’ lawyer spouse.”
Grace says the only other people testifying against her were a personal friend of the Sparks, and a teacher’s aide whose husband worked at the county courthouse.
The state investigation turned up no specific findings of abuse, the complaint says. Nevertheless, about 10 days after the investigation ended, the district fired Grace. Days after that, she was indicted on a single county of battery, and two counts of child abuse.
“Defendant Sparks presented these matters to the grand jury initiating Tina Grace’s indictments,” the complaint says.
Grace pleaded not guilty to the charges, and she says what transpired from then on was nothing short of a sham trial. For instance, she says, “In a lame attempt to [cover up] his inherent conflict of interest in prosecuting Tina Grace, Defendant Sparks did not list his wife as a witness … although she had been the only teacher in the entire Mingo County school system to provide evidence concerning Mrs. Grace.”
Grace ultimately agreed to a deal in which she would drop an ongoing appeal of her dismissal from the school district in return for Sparks’ dropping the charges against her. Sixty days later, Circuit Court Judge Michael Thornsbury expunged the record of the case. Thornsbury was later sentenced to 50 months in prison for his involvement in the scheme for which Sparks is now jailed.
Grace then filed an ethics complaint against Sparks with the West Virginia Disciplinary Counsel, which ultimately close the matter due to the fact Sparks’ license had already been annulled due to his other legal problems.
Grace has since filed to rescind the withdrawal of her grievance challenging her termination from the Mingo County Schools.
She seeks $1 million in compensatory damages, lost back wages and future wages on claims Sparks and his co-defendants derived her of her civil rights under state law, that the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to effect malicious prosecution, false arrest, and multiple counts of negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.