Justice delayed can stoke misdeeds

Recently indicted Family Court Judge Steven Jones has been under investigation by the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission since a complaint was first filed in 2006, according to a case unsealed Wednesday by the Nevada Supreme Court.

Some of the allegations are similar to the Oct. 24 federal indictment alleging Jones was one of six involved in a $3 million investment fraud scheme starting in 2002.

In the judicial commission’s investigation, however, the allegations of fraudulent financial transactions reach back as far as 1996 and involve accusations he was the "deal closer" who solicited investors who lost a total of $2.2 million.

The Judicial Discipline Commission hasn’t formally charged Jones but warned him on July 10 that it planned to go forward with a hearing, providing him with a proposed charging document and asking for his response. The commissioners still must decide whether to charge him. Normally, the proceedings would have become public at that time.

The allegations are prematurely public now because Jones’s attorney, Jim Jimmerson, sued, asking the Nevada Supreme Court to dismiss the proposed charges. He argued the allegations are so old, some dating to 1996, that Jones has been deprived of due process.

The complaint is 6 years old, and the delay in any action by the judicial commission – much less any resolution – has kept voters ignorant of potential wrongdoing by a judge who has judged others for 20 years. From my viewpoint, that dillydallying seems unfair to the judge as well as to the voters.

The judicial commission has a reputation for slow investigations and decisions.

In 2009, the Legislature changed the law to speed up the process. Starting Jan. 1, 2010, the commission has 18 months from receiving a complaint to decide whether to go forward.

In this case, the original complaint was filed Aug. 1, 2006. The commission’s executive director, David Sarnowski, contends the law is not retroactive and doesn’t apply here.

The Supreme Court’s order Wednesday was both favorable and unfavorable for Jones.

In his favor, the justices did say that Jones’s arguments have "arguable merits." So they’re willing to consider the Jones’ case requesting a writ of mandamus dismissing the case because the 6-year-old investigation has dragged on for so long.

The unfavorable aspect for Jones? The details of the never-before-heard allegations are now publicly disclosed in this column for the first time.

This fresh set of allegations claims Jones has been involved in fraudulent investments since 1996, specifically contending:

■ Between 1996 and 1998, he encouraged seven investors to put their money into Liberty Oil and Refining. The four who actually invested lost a total of $530,000.

■ Between 2003 to 2006, the judge encouraged four people to invest in GITCME. They invested at least $1.3 million and received nothing in return.

■ Between 2002 to 2007, Jones encouraged another four people to invest with Golden Resort and Movie Inc. The three who invested lost $60,000.

■ Between 2006 to 2008, he encouraged attorney Jeanne Winkler to invest between $350,000 to $400,000 in World War I bonds. Winkler was disbarred in 2011 for mishandling clients’ money.

Those who invested lost at least $2,279,500, according to the proposed charging document.

These allegations contend Jones violated the ethical canons governing judicial behavior by failing to disclose to investors that they were working with two ex-felons, Thomas Cecrle and Victor Hancock. The canons require a judge to act in a manner to promote public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary and prohibit a judge from lending the prestige of his office to promote private interests, including his own.

Yet another allegation involved an "intimate relationship" he had starting in 2002 with Michelle Taylor, a law student working for him. Later, after she married, he allowed Michelle Taylor Miller to practice in his court without disclosing their previous relationship. In four divorce cases between 2006 and 2008, she represented clients before the judge. (Gosh, think she had an advantage?)

If that sounds familiar, Jones also had a romantic relationship starting in late 2011 with a prosecutor who practiced in his court, Lisa Willardson. A grand jury investigation into their behavior ended with no action taken.

Former District Attorney David Roger filed a complaint against Jones with the judicial commission, but nothing about Jones and Willardson is mentioned in these proposed charges.

Another proposed charge focused on a land deal in Mexico in 2005-2006, when the judge may have tried to persuade a woman in Mexico to settle a dispute involving ex-felon Victor Hancock.

Still another proposed charge said around 2004 and 2005, Jones pressured his then-bailiff, Robin Whisman, to loan $18,0000 to Hancock . Whisman did it once but refused the judge’s second request.

Later, when Whisman received a $20,000 retirement payout for disability, Jones tried to convince Whisman he was entitled to some of the money. Whisman refused.

Another allegation: In 2004, in a child custody case, an attorney turned over marijuana as evidence, and Jones took the marijuana to his home, where his then-girlfriend, Amy McNair, smoked the evidence.

Some of these allegations in the judicial commission’s documents involve the same people named in the federal indictment, including Cecrle, who is Jones’ former brother-in-law, and Constance Fenton, accused of being involved with the transactions involving Winkler. The indictment charged Jones, Cecrle, Fenton, Terry Wolfe, Mark Hansen and Ashlee Martin with mail fraud, wire fraud, securities fraud, money laundering and illegal money transactions.

If Jones is convicted of a felony, he automatically is bounced from the bench. He is on paid leave from his $160,000-a-year job.

The judicial commission’s proposed charges have the potential to remove him from the bench as well, based on unethical behavior.

If the Supreme Court dismisses the 2006 complaint and accepts Jones’ argument that the 2006 complaint is too old and dismisses it, the Judicial Discipline Commission will look not only slow, but ineffective.

Jones, 54, was first elected without opposition to Family Court in 1992 and went unchallenged in 1998 and 2004.

His personal life has been tumultuous.

In 1996, he called police during a fight that ended with his pregnant wife going to jail, accused of hitting him with a flower arrangement and a shower curtain rod. That domestic dispute became an issue when Jones ran for the Nevada Supreme Court that year, and lost.

Domestic abuse charges against Jones were dismissed in 2006 when girlfriend Amy McNair recanted. He drew an opponent in 2010 after articles from 2006 in the Review-Journal about questionable financial transactions with Cecrle, his former brother-in-law.

The Review-Journal endorsed him in 2010, citing his enthusiasm, and he won. He has consistently received high marks in the newspaper’s "Judging the Judges" evaluations by local attorneys.

The Supreme Court has interesting legal arguments to consider.

While Jimmerson argued the case is too old and covered allegations outside the three-year statute of limitations, Sarnowski argued the commission can consider this a "continuing course of conduct" and the commission can consider prior acts.

Sarnowski wrote that the judge "is contending that he would be rewarded for keeping his misbehavior under wraps for an arbitrary period of time. The fact that he has been able to avoid disciplinary review this long does not necessarily mean that he should be able to do so forever."

Sarnowski described the judge as the "deal closer" who, by working with two felons, "victimized a series of people in questionable off-the-bench financial transactions."

Jones has denied the allegations made by the judicial commission and the federal grand jury.

Jimmerson pointed out that the claims about Jones’ domestic abuse in the initial 2006 complaint aren’t even mentioned in the 2012 proposed charging document. Instead, the charges of misconduct date back as far as 1996 and are partly based on Las Vegas Review-Journal articles written in 2006 about the investments.

Jones did not preserve documents and evidence he would need now for a successful defense, and two witnesses have died, Jimmerson wrote.

Jimmerson argued to keep the Supreme Court records sealed because releasing them would cause the judge’s removal by voters and make him "a target for tabloid-like headlines from the Las Vegas Review-Journal."

Jimmerson filed the sealed writ Oct. 16 asking the dismissal of the judicial commission’s proposed charges, then Jones was indicted Oct. 24. And yes, it was front-page news.

The justices unsealed the records, explaining secret judicial proceedings would undermine public confidence in the Supreme Court and the judiciary.

If Jimmerson had been able to keep the records sealed and persuade the justices to dismiss the judicial commission’s complaint, the public would not have known of the earlier allegations against Jones.

The Judicial Discipline Commission operates in secrecy for a reason, to avoid tarnishing judges with frivolous complaints. But the slowness and secrecy of its proceedings cheated voters in the 2010 election of making an informed decision in Jones’ race.

A complaint is filed in 2006, hundreds of exhibits including interviews and documents are collected, and yet no charges are filed, much less resolved one way or another before the 2010 election?

That’s outrageous.

Of course, this federal investigation hasn’t exactly been fast and furious.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison

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