|The Alabama Court of the Judiciary handed down what it called a final judgment in the case of retired Montgomery Circuit Court Judge Pat Warner on January 27. What the court did was to affirm an agreement settling the 74 count complaint the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC) brought against Warner nearly eight months ago.|
It should come as no surprise that shortly after the agreement was affirmed by the court, that JIC would issue a press release filled with falsehoods and misinformation. After all, Warner and her supporters have contended for months that the complaint JIC brought against her was filled with falsehoods and misinformation, just like the subsequent news release.
JIC attempted to spin the story as a victory. It was not. However, the public may very well perceive it that way since Warner’s side of the story has never been told in any detail in the local media.
After the complaint was first filed in June, Warner was advised by legal counsel not to discuss her case with the media and until last week, she did not. Now that the case is resolved, Warner is able to tell her side of the story and it differs markedly from the picture painted by JIC and Warner’s detractors.
Warner was first elected to be a Family Court Judge in November 2004 and assumed the bench in 2005. She made some enemies along the way, but survived a reelection challenge in both the Democratic primary and the General Election in 2010.
Both campaigns were unusually ugly but Warner prevailed comfortably. At the time, she hoped the vicious attacks against her would end now that the campaign was over.
They did not. As a matter of fact, according to Warner, the attacks became even uglier and more personal.
Shortly before beginning her second term, Warner’s husband achieved a career milestone when he was appointed North Dakota State Library Director and moved to Bismarck. Although Warner and her husband in all their years of marriage had never lived apart, they decided to try it.
They laid out a schedule of monthly visits and embarked on a long distance marriage. Her detractors kept up the smear campaign against her, using talk radio and Internet blog sites to defame her and the Judicial Inquiry Commission to investigate what were clearly a series of false allegations against her.
By June, she and her husband had grown weary of the separation and he talked her into retiring and moving to North Dakota, which she did on June 15. She had been in Bismarck less than a week when she learned that JIC had filed a 74 count complaint against her, even though she was retired from the bench.
The JIC complaint accused her of several violations of the Canons of Judicial Ethics. She was charged with mishandling cases, entering orders without evidence or without conducting hearings and acting rudely in court.
Most of the allegations appeared minor compared to one. JIC alleged Warner had accepted campaign contributions from VictoryLand owner Milton McGregor and that in return she had ruled in favor of McGregor’s daughter in a child custody case.
McGregor was on trial on bribery charges at the time and now JIC was, in effect, accusing him of bribing a circuit court judge. Interestingly, in October, four months after filing the original complaint, JIC rewrote and resubmitted its complaint against Warner, removing all reference to Milton McGregor and any charges related to campaign contributions from him.
“JIC knew that these charges, every single one of them were fabricated,” Warner told The Montgomery Independent. “Milton McGregor never contributed money to me. They knew that. They already had sworn testimony.
I think all this was filed to coincide with the gambling trial that was coming up and to sensationalize this even more. Joe Espy (McGregor’s attorney) was going nuts because in essence it said that Milton McGregor had bribed a sitting judge and that judge was corrupt and we were in cahoots. Well, I don’t know Milton McGregor.
I think it was timed to achieve the maximum amount of coverage of the gambling trial and to continue this smear campaign which had gotten worse and worse and worse. It wasn’t true. They knew it wasn’t true.
“I had contributions from several PACs that are operated by Johnny Crawford. They subpoenaed Johnny and had him on the record, sworn testimony.
“Contributions from PACs are not illegal. There was nothing untoward and I had told Johnny, as had my campaign manager Cal Franklin, we didn’t want gambling money.
“They had sworn testimony from Johnny Crawford. They knew that this was not true, before they filed the first complaint. They had both my campaign disclosures and the sworn testimony of Johnny Crawford.
“Why did they take it out of the second complaint? I assume because they didn’t want to try to defend that if it went all the way to a trial. They knew it was wrong. They knew it was false. They made that up and they knew that. And I think they didn’t want any public scrutiny about that,” Warner explained.
So, the McGregor connection just disappeared in the second, revised complaint but JIC continued to pursue the other allegations. Shortly thereafter, the Court of the Judiciary ordered the two sides to negotiate a settlement, which they did and submitted to the court on December 19.
The court affirmed the settlement last month. Under the agreement, 73 of the 74 counts against Warner were dismissed with prejudice, which means they cannot be brought against her again. All 73 of the counts stem from just five of the thousands of cases Warner has handled during her six-and-a-half years as a Family Court Judge.
On the 74th count, Warner stipulated that JIC “could prove by clear and convincing evidence that Warner failed to avoid the appearance of impropriety by failing to recuse herself for the reasons alleged in Count 3 of the First Amended Complaint.” Warner also stipulated that she would never again seek to serve in a judicial capacity in Alabama.
Since she had already left the bench and left the state of Alabama, Warner’s lawyer, Chuck Dauphin, said JIC “wanted to save face, so we threw them a bone to end this ridiculous mess.” Warner compared to charge against her to a minor traffic violation.
“I denied that motion to recuse because I didn’t have any grounds to recuse. Then, 25 days later, I reconsidered and said to avoid the appearance of impropriety I’m going to recuse.” And that’s what Warner did.
So the “appearance of impropriety” to which Warner stipulated was corrected 25 days after it allegedly occurred. Even today, Warner contends there were no grounds for her to recuse, but she did so out of an abundance of caution.
There were no other sanctions against Warner. No fine. No restitution. No court costs. No effort to deny her pension. No effort to disbar her. Nothing. She was retired and had moved to be with her husband in North Dakota, never planning to return to Alabama, except to visit.
However, that is not the way JIC spun the story. In an effort to make itself look victorious, JIC put out a self-serving news release that was misleading, at best, and factually incomplete.
JIC’s release stated Warner had been charged with 74 violations, but did not mention that 73 of them were dismissed. JIC praised the courage and perseverance of the complainants, although their allegations were never properly or fully investigated and not subject to any type of evidentiary due process.
The agreement hardly warranted JIC’s claim that “the Courtâ€™s judgment today protects the public from any further abuse by Patricia Warner,” since none of the allegations against her have been proven in any type of court proceeding. Nor was JIC correct when it asserted that Warner “voluntarily imposed the ultimate sanction on herself: removal from judicial office.”
The fact of the matter is that Warner retired and it was four days later that JIC filed its complaint against her. She is adamant that she did not know ahead of time the JIC complaint was coming and that she didn’t retire to avoid facing charges or preserve her pension.
JIC was just plain wrong when it claimed: She also forfeited, for life, judicial retirement in the amount of $62,567 per year. Warner was not removed from office, but she did retire before earning her full judicial retirement.
Warner was a state employee for many years before being elected to the Family Court. Today, she receives monthly retirement benefits in the amount of $4,538.41, a combination of both judicial and state employee retirement.
If she had completed 12 years on the bench and not retired early, she would be entitled to an annual pension, according to Bill Kelly at the Retirement Systems of Alabama, of about $101,000. By retiring five-and-a-half years early, she sacrifices, according to Kelly’s figures, $46,789 per year – a significant amount, but not the $62,567 claimed by JIC.
By retiring five and a half years before the end of her second term Warner also forfeited more than $700,000 in salary, but that’s what happens when people retire – they give up their salary and she still has the capacity to earn income over the next five-plus years. The distinction should be made that making a financial sacrifice to retire early and keep her family together, is much different than JIC’s implied claim that it forced her removal from office.
So was it worth it? Warner says “Yes.”
“I didn’t like living separate and apart from my husband. We’ve never been apart. We’ve been married for a very long time and I wanted to spend my years with him. I didn’t want to live apart.
“We both have separate careers and we always have. This was the time for him to pursue his ultimate goal of being state librarian that he always wanted. And he had supported me for years.
“We tried it for eight months, living geographically separate, meeting on weekends every month or so. It was not good. At my age I didn’t want to do that,” Warner explained.
Despite her reelection victory in 2010, the smear campaign and the complaints to JIC against her continued. Internet blogs and talk radio even went as far as to solicit complaints again her.
Warner believes the complaints to JIC and the smear campaign against her had diminished her effectiveness as a judge. That also contributed to her decision to retire.
“During the campaign, Kathy Brown ran against me in the Democratic primary and it was very nasty and I won. And I thought that all of these Internet videos of these disgruntled women who didn’t want to take responsibility for their own behavior, but were mad at me would end when the campaign ended.
“But that continued. Julia Weller, the Republican running against me in the general election just stepped right in where Kathy Brown had left out, never left a beat. Internet bloggers were just in a frenzy. I couldn’t stop that.
“The newspaper was writing horrible stories that were not true and would not retract them. You couldn’t talk to them and tell them what really happened.
“As a sitting judge I couldn’t talk about cases. I couldn’t say a word. I was a candidate for office and had to be very, very careful about what I said and I suppose they knew that.
“So, we have YouTube videos going on with people calling me all manner of awful names and saying how I favored this person or that person. The only people I ever favored were children. They were my only interest.
“There were radio call-in shows where people were calling in, just making up stories about me and my family. The call-in hosts would not listen, they would cut off people who would call in a try to rectify that story and tell the truth.
“So that was getting worse and worse. I truly thought that once I was reelected – I was a circuit judge for goodness sake – that would stop. Well, that didn’t happen. It just got worse.
“Looking back, if I had known in December of 2009 what I know now, I would have finished my term in January of 2011 and walked away. I didn’t know (the system) would allow this and so that’s why I retired.
“Quite frankly, I could not be as effective a judge as I wanted to be because we had this. Every time somebody was unhappy, they would want to file an appeal. They wanted to go and complain to JIC and JIC automatically investigated. Automatically.
“There were people running around all over Montgomery telling attorneys that they were investigators for JIC. They were asking questions about me and asking questions about personal things that had nothing to do with any case,” Warner said.
Warner contends all 74 counts against her were fraudulent. “All the charges of ethics violations were fabricated. There was never any truth in any of the charges,” she said and that’s why JIC was willing to agree to a settlement with no findings or admissions of wrongdoing on Warner’s part.
“This was last November, when we settled it. Chuck (Dauphin) presented the commission with a binder of information, regarding every case and every charge, which we had already answered and sent to them. This was information that they had. That’s when they said if you’ll just admit or go with one charge, stipulate to something, then we’ll dismiss everything else.
“As Chuck said, we threw them a bone and they tried to make that into some sort of victory. In typical fashion they have continued to squawk and wail and carry on and thereâ€™s nothing to that either,” Warner said.
Warner and Dauphin both contend that JIC never thoroughly investigated the charges against her.
“During its investigation of the 5 cases/complaints which were the sources of the 74 charges filed against Judge Warner, the Commission interviewed only persons who were willing to confirm the complaints,” Dauphin said in a statement. “Incredibly, the Commission did not call or seek to interview opposing parties or attorneys in any of these cases.”
One of Warner’s loudest critics has been Montgomery attorney and radio talk show host Mark Montiel, who represented Milton McGregor’s former son-in-law in a child custody case. Montiel first brought up the allegations that Warner had accepted campaign contributions from McGregor in court and then later trumpeted them on his radio show.
At one point, he filed a motion asking Warner to recuse herself from the case. While trying to set a hearing on the grounds for recusal, she asked Montiel in court what his reasons were.
“In the record, which is sealed, he said that we don’t know that you’ve done anything wrong,” Warner told The Independent. “Mark Montiel said that on the record. We don’t know that you’ve done anything wrong but you have large contributions from PACs, he told me.
“And I said, well Mr. Montiel what else do you have? It’s not illegal to get money from PACs. Have you talked with Johnny Crawford? Do you know who all contributed to these PACs?
“He said we do not, your honor. I said, then how can you make this statement? He replied we just believe that.
“That’s when Mark Montiel started with his radio show going on and the tactics that he normally uses. Once again, I’m a sitting judge, I can’t say a thing,” Warner said.
When asked if Montiel had used the radio airwaves to defame her, Warner was typically blunt.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “I wasn’t the only one, but he did. He did that routinely with political candidates or with the board of education or with whomever he was focusing on at that moment. And that goes on today. But yeah,” she said with a sarcastic flourish.
As far as Milton McGregor goes, Warner insists he had nothing to do with her or her political campaigns.
“I met that man twice, in all these years,” she said. “Everybody knows who he is because you see him on television. But I’ve met him twice at social events and JIC knew that.”