Harlan judge faces ethics hearing on charges of abusing office

Circuit judge could face sanctions

bestep@herald-leader.comAugust 30, 2011 

LONDON — Harlan County's circuit judge abused the power of his office to further his political and personal aims, an attorney for the state panel that disciplines judges argued Monday.

One key ethics charge against Circuit Judge Russell D. Alred is that he appointed a special grand jury in April 2010 to investigate county Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop, whom Alred's second cousin was challenging for re-election at the time.

Alred appointed the panel the same day he was given a sworn statement in which Grieshop said he had refused a request by Alred to rescind the lease on some county-owned property, which Alred wanted used for a different purpose.

Alred entered the grand-jury order to retaliate against Grieshop and influence the election, Jeff Mando, attorney for the state Judicial Conduct Commission, told commission members.

"The evidence will show Judge Alred failed to uphold the integrity of the judiciary," Mando said. "He's disregarded the law."

Mando's comments came on the first day of a hearing before the commission on more than a dozen ethics charges against Alred.

Alred has strongly denied breaking ethics rules and has fought the charges hard, arguing that they were orchestrated by people who want to undermine him politically.

"That's a really good fiction," Alred said in his opening statement, referring to the case against him.

If the commission decides that Alred violated rules governing conduct by judges, it could levy sanctions ranging from a private admonishment to his removal. Alred could appeal the panel's judgment to the state Supreme Court.

The commission initially charged Alred in February with 20 ethics violations. It has since dismissed seven of the counts, in some cases because Alred was not provided records as required.

Monday's hearing included the tense spectacle of the county's top prosecutor, Commonwealth's Attorney Henry S. Johnson, testifying against Alred, and Alred cross-examining Johnson.

The two used to be deacons at the same Baptist church, but each has said the other has not been honest in matters related to the ethics charges.

Three of the remaining charges against Alred relate to the special grand jury.

According to testimony, Harlan County Sheriff Marvin Lipfird's office began investigating a claim in fall 2009 by a drug addict who said she could buy drugs from Grieshop in his office. The woman was looking for a break on her pending drug charges.

Johnson said the Attorney General's Office helped investigate and concluded the woman was not credible and that there was no evidence of a crime by Grieshop.

Johnson said he and Alred discussed having a grand jury rule on the case — even though there would be no indictment — in order to remove any notion that politics was involved in not prosecuting Grieshop.

Johnson said he agreed on the need for a special grand jury, perhaps from another county.

However, Johnson said, he thought that as it turned out, Alred's action to appoint the jury was tainted by politics.

Alred specified in the order that Grieshop was the subject of the investigation, said the inquiry dealt with whether he sold drugs from his office, and said the investigation was continuing, even though Johnson considered it closed.

Alred scheduled the jury to meet May 25, a week after the election, meaning the issue would have been hanging over Grieshop in the final month of the campaign.

Someone released the order to the media.

Johnson testified that he thought the order and the release were politically motivated.

Johnson said he then decided to present the case to the grand jury already in session — rather than wait for the panel Alred ordered — because he thought it would be unjust to leave that shadow hanging over Grieshop until after the vote.

The grand jury declined to indict Grieshop.

After that, Alred angrily confronted Johnson and cut off his — and Lipfird's —security-card access to the courthouse, Johnson testified.

Alred pointed out that Johnson agreed to having a special grand jury appointed, and he said the order was not politically motivated.

The judge said he cut off Johnson's and Lipfird's security cards because he didn't want people who had tried to set him up to have access to his area of the judicial center.

The prosecutor and sheriff tried to dump the investigation of Grieshop in his lap to make Alred look bad, Alred said.

Grieshop has since decided that Alred did nothing wrong and will testify for him, Alred said.

Other charges against Alred include that he improperly pushed for two doctors charged with selling drugs to pay a total of $1 million as part of their guilty plea and approved an order saying he would control expenditure of the money.

After the commission notified Alred of a complaint about the issue, Alred wrote a new order saying he didn't solicit the earlier language on him controlling the money, and that it was put in inadvertently.

However, Johnson testified that Alred was well aware that the provision was in the original order.

Alred said attorneys put that wording in the first document, and that he started to correct it at a hearing but didn't in order to get the case settled.

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