Suspended Family Court Judge Steven Jones committed professional misconduct by maintaining a romantic relationship with a prosecutor who appeared before him, a state judicial panel has concluded.
In a four-page written decision filed Christmas Eve, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline found that special prosecutors had proven “by clear and convincing evidence” eight of the 12 charges they filed against Jones in December 2012 stemming from his relationship with former Deputy District Attorney Lisa Willardson.
Jones was accused of violating rules of the Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct that requires judges, among other things, to comply with the law, avoid the appearance of impropriety and conduct themselves in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.
He faces a Jan. 27 public hearing on a wide range of possible sanctions including another suspension and removal from the bench.
“Many people feel that Judge Jones is made of Teflon and that he can do whatever he wants,” said former District Attorney David Roger, who sparked the judicial investigation. “Now they know differently.”
Special prosecutors had proven all three counts tied directly to the judge’s romantic relationship with Willardson between October and December 2011, the commission ruled.
Two of the counts alleged Jones improperly maintained a “close social and personal relationship” with Willardson between October and December 2011 while she “actively litigated cases” before him and then failed to disqualify himself from her cases.
The other count accused Jones of interfering with Roger’s efforts to remove Willardson from a child welfare unit that prosecuted cases in the judge’s courtroom.
The commission found there was insufficient evidence that Jones violated the judicial code in four counts related to the activities of two deputy district attorneys who helped expose the relationship with Willardson through a controversial under-the-table photo of the two at an October, 2011 party in Henderson.
Special prosecutors did not prove misconduct by Jones when he failed to disqualify himself from hearing the child welfare cases of the two deputies, Michelle Edwards and Janne Hanrahan, and then issued an order banning them from his courtroom, the commission said.
But the seven-member panel ruled prosecutors had proven two counts alleging that Jones wrongly directed then-Family Court Hearing Master Brigid Duffy to disqualify herself from hearing the deputies’ cases.
The commission also found prosecutors had presented strong evidence to sustain three counts accusing Jones of using his judicial office to help Willardson prepare a response to a State Bar of Nevada complaint against her stemming from the romantic relationship.
Jones was accused of personally helping Willardson and instructing his law clerk Himanshu Kumar Rattan and judicial assistant Connie Avila to work on the State Bar response on government time.
The bar eventually issued a “letter of caution” to Willardson criticizing her professional conduct.
The judge’s lead lawyer, James J. Jimmerson, said Thursday that both he and Jones were “disappointed” with the commission’s decision.
“We do respect that there was a meaningful effort on the part of the commission to evaluate the evidence and apply it to the charges,” Jimmerson said. “Their dismissal of charges relating to his right to recuse individuals with whom he had a bias or prejudice is evidence of this fact.”
Hanrahan, now a chief deputy district attorney in the child welfare unit, said she was “disappointed” that the commission didn’t find that Jones had unethically retaliated against her and Edwards.
“He didn’t have problems with me for five weeks until the time his girlfriend was transferred out of child welfare, altogether,” Hanrahan said.
The day-long punishment hearing for Jones will be conducted next month by video conference in Reno and Las Vegas and will include testimony from witnesses on both sides.
The commission spent a week in Las Vegas earlier this month hearing more than a dozen witnesses under oath, including Jones, Willardson and Roger, who fired Willardson after the relationship was exposed.
In closing arguments, Special Prosecutor Kathleen Paustian said Jones at a minimum maintained the personal relationship with Willardson while she appeared before him the last two weeks of October and the first week of November 2011.
The longtime judge tried to “manipulate” Willardson’s return to the unit and started a fight with Roger that stalled important juvenile cases during the holidays, Paustian argued.
Several times, Paustian referred to Willardson as the judge’s “girlfriend,” citing emails between Willardson and Jones the last two weeks of October 2011 in which she said Jones was “awesome” and “hot.”
Paustian presented records that showed Jones and Willardson text messaged each other 34 times on Oct. 20, 2011, the day after they met for lunch for the first time.
Investigators uncovered 2,500 text messages between Jones and Willardson through Dec. 15 of that year, Paustian said.
Jones also waited until December to issue a formal ruling favorable to Willardson in a case she had before Jones toward the end of October. By December, the two were deeply involved with each other, Paustian argued.
In his testimony, Jones denied being romantically involved with Willardson in late October 2011 and trying to interfere with Roger’s decision to move Willardson out of his courtroom.
Jones testified that was “exceedingly offended” by a cellphone photo Edwards snapped of him under a table at the Oct. 28, 2011, party with his hand near Willardson’s knee. The deputies showed the photo to their supervisors.
Both Jones and Willardson testified that they didn’t start thinking they were in a relationship until Thanksgiving, when they spent time together with Willardson’s family in Utah.
Jones said he was still dating Willardson.
Jones, first elected to the bench in 1992, was suspended by the commission following his November 2012 federal fraud indictment. He has been receiving his $200,000 annual salary since then and is up for re-election in 2014.
The indictment alleges Jones used the power of his Family Court office to carry out a $3 million investment fraud scheme with five other defendants between 2002 and 2012. His trial is March 3.
The judicial commission has been investigating similar financial fraud allegations against Jones, but that case, which dates to 2006, is tied up at the Nevada Supreme Court.