Suspended Family Court judge takes stand in own defense

Suspended Family Court Judge Steven Jones took the witness stand in his own defense Thursday, denying he mishandled a romantic relationship with a prosecutor who appeared before him.

Jones told members of the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline he “made some mistakes,” but he spent much of his several hours on the witness stand ripping into the district attorney’s office.

He said he was “exceedingly offended” by a photo a deputy district attorney snapped of him under a table at an Oct. 28, 2011, party with his hand near the knee of Lisa Willardson, the prosecutor he had started to see socially.

Several times Jones said the cellphone photo depicted his “crotch.”

The photo sparked a rift between Jones and the district attorney’s office that echoed through the hallways of the Clark County justice system and threatened to stall child abuse and neglect cases. It resulted in Willardson’s firing and a 12-count judicial complaint against the longtime judge.

Willardson’s boss, then-District Attorney David Roger, sparked the misconduct investigation. Roger testified earlier in the week for commission attorneys.

Jones — who was suspended by the commission after his November 2012 federal fraud indictment — testified that he was outraged that the district attorney’s office refused to discipline Edwards and another deputy in the child welfare unit, Janne Hanrahan, who helped disseminate the cellphone photo.

He also maintained that he never got any meaningful apologies from the deputies, while Willardson’s career was taking a nose dive.

He called the conduct of the two deputies juvenile and said he had a hard time sitting back and watching the district attorney’s office “condone this inappropriate behavior.”

Jones insisted that he didn’t consider himself to be in a romantic relationship with Willardson at the time of the party, which took place at a Mexican restaurant in Henderson.

Contrary to suspicions raised by Edwards and Hanrahan in their sworn testimony, Jones said he was not “affectionate” with Willardson at the party.

Commission members spent about 10 minutes with Jones trying to determine where his legs were positioned under the table in a giant blow-up of the photo. Willardson was wearing jeans.

Jones, who described himself as a man who “guards his privacy a lot,” said he didn’t consider himself in a romantic relationship with Willardson until Thanksgiving, when she invited him to meet her family in Utah.

Willardson took the same position in earlier testimony.

But Kathleen Paustian, a special counsel for the judicial commission, said investigators uncovered 2,500 text messages between Jones and Willardson between Oct. 17, 2011, and Dec. 15, 2011.

Jones insisted that there were very few texts and emails between them the last two weeks of October and early November when Willardson was still appearing before him in child welfare cases.

Before the Oct. 28 party, Jones said, he had only met Willardson for lunch one time and another time for dinner.

Under questioning from his lead lawyer, James J. Jimmerson, he said he was “very cognizant of his ethical responsibilities,” and his entire world centered around his judicial duties.

“I live to sit on the bench,” he said. “The bench is my life.’

Jones said he would have disclosed his involvement with Willardson when he felt he needed to disclose it.

But he added that he never got a chance to do that because of the gossip created by the party photo.

Earlier Thursday, Willardson appeared to have a difficult time dealing with cross-examination from Paustian.

Willardson had sworn under oath Wednesday that she didn’t appear before Jones while she was romantically involved with him.

On Thursday, after she again denied being involved with Jones the last two weeks of October 2011, Paustian showed her a copy of an Oct. 17, 2011, post on her Facebook page that said she was in a “relationship.” Willardson had trouble explaining the post, suggesting it had been backdated.

During her cross-examination, Washoe County District Judge Jerome Polaha, the commission member presiding over the weeklong hearing, questioned Willardson about whether she understood her ethical obligations to refrain from getting involved with Jones while appearing before him.

She insisted she understood the obligations and again maintained that she wasn’t involved with Jones when she was in his courtroom.

Willardson testified Wednesday 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.

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

Willardson said her relationship with Jones began on Oct. 17, when they arranged the lunch.

She acknowledged that Jones kissed her on the cheek after the dinner date on Oct. 23.

Willardson also testified that there was no improper contact between her and Jones at the Oct. 28 party, but she admitted hugging the judge afterward, as she did with other guests.

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

Jones is to resume his testimony today and face cross-examination.

Closing arguments also are expected, followed by the commission’s deliberations behind closed doors on the 12 counts against Jones.

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

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