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Former prosecutor denies appearing before Family Court judge while in relationship

Former prosecutor Lisa Willardson swore under oath Wednesday that she never appeared before Family Court Judge Steven Jones while she was romantically involved with him in late 2011.

In roughly 90 minutes of direct testimony before the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline, a sometimes emotional Willardson laid out her initial social contact with Jones, which began on Oct. 17, 2011, when she said the two set up a lunch date.

The commission is conducting a week-long hearing into allegations the suspended judge mishandled his relationship with Willardson, a former deputy district attorney

Willardson is to be cross-examined Thursday by commission attorneys.

She testified Wednesday under questioning from Jones’ lead lawyer, James J. Jimmerson, that she used a poor choice of words when she called Jones “freaking hot” in an Oct. 17, 2011, email to one of the judge’s assistants.

“I wish I would have used the word, handsome,” she told the commission.

At the same time, Willardson said, “I found Judge Jones extremely attractive, ridiculously intelligent, and he ran a good courtroom.”

In hindsight, Willardson added, she is “embarrassed” to have been part of what she called a “cheesy” fan club of the judge started by the female deputies in her child welfare unit at the district attorney’s office. She said the women found Jones to be an “extraordinarily handsome” man.

Willardson acknowledged that Jones kissed her on the cheek after a dinner date they had on Oct. 23, 2011.

Commission attorneys have presented evidence that Willardson appeared in court before Jones several times between Oct. 17 and Nov. 2.

But Willardson insisted they were not in a romantic relationship at the time and the legal matters were uncontested.

Willardson seemed well-prepared for her testimony, often answering, “Oh absolutely,” as Jimmerson led her through a series of questions.

At one point, Washoe County District Judge Jerome Polaha, the commission member presiding over the hearing, instructed her to trim her lengthy answers to relevant information the panel needed.

She mispronounced Polaha’s name when responding to the judge.

The relationship between Jones and Willardson was exposed at an Oct. 28, 2011, party when Deputy District Attorney Michelle Edwards, one of Willardson’s colleagues in the child welfare unit, snapped a photo with a cellphone under the table of Jones’s hand near Willardson’s knee.

Edwards and another deputy, Janne Hanrahan, showed the photo to their supervisors and word got back to Jones, leading to a rift between the office and Jones and to Willardson’s firing in December 2011.

Willardson testified that she would have been “appalled” at her fellow deputies had she known they took the photo that night.

“Did you ever hold hands with Judge Jones under the table?” Jimmerson asked.

“No,” Willardson responded with a laugh.

She admitted hugging Jones after the party disbanded at the Henderson restaurant, as she did with other guests. But she insisted she still didn’t believe she was in a relationship with the judge at the time.

Willardson, however, acknowledged that she felt romantically involved with Jones when she took him home to Utah to meet her family for Thanksgiving.

When Jimmerson asked Willardson how she felt when her then-boss, former District Attorney David Roger, had her transferred out of the child welfare unit, she choked up and said she was “sad” and “disappointed.”

“This is what I wanted to do. This is why I became a lawyer,” she said.

On Tuesday, Family Court Administrator Leonard Cash testified that he had meetings in early December 2011 with other high-level court officials in an effort to resolve the rift between Jones and Roger’s office.

Jones had put the word out that he was so outraged over the party photo that he wanted to ban Edwards, Hanrahan and their supervisors from his courtroom.

Cash testified that he pitched a plan to court officials to try to persuade Roger to return Willardson to her position in the child welfare unit and let his successor decide her fate after his retirement in January 2012. In return, Jones would not ban Edwards and Hanrahan from his courtroom.

Cash said Jones had signed off on the offer and he thought he could call upon Roger “as a friend” to accept it. But Roger refused to accept it, and Jones issued an order formally banning Edwards and Hanrahan from his courtroom.

Soon after, Roger fired Willardson.

On Wednesday, Willardson acknowledged in her testimony that she had three dates with Cash, two dinners and one movie, before she started seeing Jones.

In other testimony Wednesday, Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti and Family Court Chief Judge Gloria O’Malley explained how they tried to deal with the stress on child welfare cases that the rift created.

Jones is expected to testify in his own defense before week’s end.

Contact reporter Jeff German at jgerman@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-8135. Follow him on Twitter @JGermanRJ.

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