North Las Vegas Judge Catherine Ramsey is waging a costly legal battle against an ex-employee and, according to public records, used a city credit card to help pay for it.
Dozens of emails, letters and legal filings obtained by the Review-Journal highlight thousands of dollars in legal fees swiped on a city purchasing card as Ramsey faced mounting debt tied to a 3-year-old wrongful termination suit filed by her former judicial assistant.
The first-term judge billed some $12,000 in legal fees to the city between December and January, a move officials say amounts to a misappropriation of public funds.
It counts as just the latest in a series of public clashes between Ramsey and city officials, who have taken the judge to task in recent weeks over attorneys’ claims she has inappropriately dismissed criminal charges and waged a monthslong “vendetta” against the city attorney’s office.
“This is very troubling, and we are looking into it because city purchase cards are to be used for city-approved expenses only,” Mayor’s Office Chief of Staff Ryann Juden said Thursday.
Ramsey has faced five formal complaints filed by current and former employees in her three years on the bench, including a pair of lawsuits working their way through the courts.
City Attorney Sandra Douglass Morgan has declined to represent the judge in those cases, litigation she considers outside the “course and scope” of her office’s duties.
Cash-strapped city officials have shelled out $53,000 to settle or investigate employees’ charges against Ramsey, which allege a pattern of “discriminatory,” “hostile” and “intimidating” conduct on the bench.
The municipal judge made $149,466 in base pay in 2013 and total pay and benefits worth $216,814, according to TransparentNevada.com.
Ramsey did not return several phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Municipal Court Judge Sean Hoeffgen — who sent a December letter as a colleague warning the judge against using court funds to support her legal defense — could not be reached.
It remains unclear what consequences, if any, the judge could face as a result of the move. Nevada law stipulates judges can only be removed through a voter-led recall. Complaints also can be made to the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, which investigates allegations of judicial misconduct in office.
Under similar circumstances, nonjudicial employees could face a much swifter fate.
“The city’s policy clearly states that if a city employee were to improperly use a purchasing card, the employee could be ... terminated for improper use of the card,” Juden said.
ROOTED IN POLITICAL CAMPAIGN
Ramsey’s costliest legal fight — the one partially subsidized by a city expense account — has roots in her 2011 election campaign.
Susan Forti, a longtime Municipal Court employee, was publicly introduced as Ramsey’s new executive assistant at the judge’s campaign kickoff barbecue in March 2011, according to court documents.
Forti and her husband, then-Police Chief Joseph Forti, spent the next four months campaigning for Ramsey, who went on to win her first election bid handily.
Two weeks later Ramsey fired Susan Forti — via text message, according to Forti — just four months shy of her 10th work anniversary and a state-funded retirement.
“The Wednesday before she fired me she told me she was only keeping me until December, because a friend of hers, who ended up being her campaign manager, needed a job,” Forti said Friday. “Obviously, that wasn’t true.”
Forti filed a wrongful termination lawsuit and has asked for a personal apology along with about $20,500 to settle her pending case against Ramsey.
“The consequences of your failure to keep your promise to Ms. Forti, as you well know by now, were grave,” Forti’s lawyer Telia Williams wrote in an October letter to Ramsey. “Even if the text message termination is not per se actionable, such action was an unnecessary indignity against a faithful and excellent employee who tried to do right by you.
“It will not play well to a jury.”
Ramsey contends in public records that she fired Forti only after she failed to show up to work and only on the advice of Hoeffgen and then-director of human resources Joyce Lira, something the city attorney’s office denies.
The city settled its end of the three-year-old complaint in October, though Ramsey maintains they still have a responsibility to back her legal defense.
“I was instructed by the City of North Las Vegas and the Chief Judge to separate an employee from her position on July 5, 2011 when she did not appear for work as scheduled,” Ramsey wrote to the city attorney in February. “Therefore, I disagree with the denial by the city.
“This lawsuit arises out of the course and scope of my employment as a judge and ONLY exists due to my actions as a Judge.”
Ramsey’s lawyer, Keith Lyons, claims the judge faces upward of $27,000 in legal fees tied to the suit.
He says Ramsey was within her rights to bill some of that total to a city credit card in December, noting that the charges had been processed but never “assigned a line item” on the city’s balance sheet.
State Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto has advised Ramsey that she will not help her fight the case.
HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT
Documents released by the city in response to a public records request detail three other workplace-related complaints filed against the judge over the past two years.
Two of those involve court marshals who accused Ramsey of creating a hostile work environment for court security staffers.
One, brought by former North Las Vegas marshal Gather Cohen, is working its way through the courts. Neither Cohen nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
The other, brought by marshal Bill Max, claims Ramsey maneuvered to have him demoted and eventually fired, at one point remarking that she should have “appointed Bill Max to chief” so she could fire him without union interference. It remains unclear if Ramsey has the authority to appoint Max to “chief” or how such an appointment might allow her to fire him.
The complaint was eventually resolved through a grievance filed with the city Police Supervisors Association, where Max said he brought the allegations out of fear of retribution. He could not be reached for comment.
A third complaint against the judge features a similar story from David Turner, a former interim court administrator who was demoted then fired, after Ramsey “actively discouraged” him from applying for the permanent court administrator job now held by Cindy Marshall.
Turner’s dispute is being mediated by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, whose representatives declined to comment on the case.
A discrimination complaint filed with the agency in January alleges Ramsey told Turner, who is black, that he didn’t qualify for the permanent court administrator’s job because he didn’t have a master’s degree.
Marshall, who is white, was promoted to the post soon thereafter, despite the fact that she does not have a master’s degree and, according to the complaint, “did not have any Nevada court experience.”
Contact James DeHaven at email@example.com or 702-477-3839. Find him on Twitter @JamesDeHaven.