The local judicial system has been receiving a much-needed housecleaning, but Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan didn’t get the memo.
Sullivan in March unwisely decided to try to help protect embattled courthouse Marshal Steve Rushfield, a central figure in an ongoing FBI investigation, by taking him on as his personal judicial marshal.
Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Rushfield, suspected of misconduct around Family Court, was suspended in December. Now some courthouse insiders are wondering whether statements by those being investigated, given under penalty of perjury, are matching up with the facts.
Sullivan might have had the best of intentions, but his act of extreme blockheadedness only further complicated life for Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti as she continues to push to improve the professional standards of the court’s approximately 100 marshals.
The vast majority of those marshals are real professionals despite their inferior pay and bruised credibility because of the ongoing federal criminal investigation. Togliatti on Monday defended her marshals as a group and vented some of her frustrations with the Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial board.
As if balancing a promising judicial career with the marshals’ mess weren’t challenge enough, Togliatti’s part-time courthouse-keeping duty is further complicated by the burgeoning debacle involving Family Court Judge Steven Jones. He is accused of soiling his judicial robes by participating in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme and only on Monday told the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline that he was withdrawing from his re-election bid. You’ll find Jones’ photo in Webster’s dictionary next to the definition of judicial arrogance.
Togliatti, in her third year as chief, has spent much of her time trying to improve the policies and procedures of the marshals, which she says hadn’t kept pace with the overwhelming growth of the local justice system.
From improving training and hiring practices to legitimizing internal affairs investigations, the changes were enacted with the assistance of retired FBI agent Bob Bennett, whom Togliatti hired as the court’s security director. The results: substantive changes and an ongoing FBI investigation.
“My desire with Bob Bennett was to take it up a notch,” Togliatti says.
It’s probably safe to say a federal investigation qualifies as taking it up a notch.
Although Togliatti says she believes the “overhaul of the policies and procedures related to our mission” has “improved customer service,” she notes that budget challenges have delayed the filling of six marshals positions. Keeping qualified new hires is a challenge because of the relatively low starting salary in comparison to even public school and park police. Courthouse marshals each day encounter hundreds, even thousands of people under substantial stress.
Togliatti makes it clear the FBI investigation is the result of the court’s new internal housecleaning efforts.
“You lift a rock, you shine a light, and what comes out comes out,” she says.
Previously mute marshals continue to come forward. Although the stories some have been telling are ugly, the chief judge says she believes it will lead to a better system. The “culture of silence” has been broken.
“The environment is, we will investigate any wrongdoing,” Togliatti says. “We will not tolerate any integrity issues.”
I’m still left wondering why Sullivan thought it was appropriate to help demoted former Lt. Rushfield temporarily evade termination by taking him on as a judicial marshal. (Judges control the hiring of their courtroom marshals. Administrative marshals, such as those who secure the courthouse entry areas, fall under different supervision.)
Asked about Sullivan’s decision to hire Rushfield despite the stench of misconduct, Togliatti shrugs, pauses uncomfortably and chooses her words carefully.
“I wouldn’t have done it,” the chief judge says. “It was his call. It’s his courtroom. He can choose whomever he wishes. I think that he made a decision I wouldn’t make.”
Maybe the culture of silence really has been broken around the local judicial system.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at email@example.com or call 702-383-0295.