Judicial commission votes to remove Harlan circuit judge from office

Decision based on ethics violations

bestep@herald-leader.comSeptember 20, 2011 

Harlan Circuit Judge Russell Alred at his ethics hearing on Aug. 30, 2011.

BILL ESTEP | STAFF

Harlan County's circuit judge violated a long list of ethics rules and should be removed from office, a state disciplinary panel has ruled.

Judge Russell D. Alred is only the fourth judge the Judicial Conduct Commission has ordered removed from office since 1984.

Alred had improper involvement in cases, failed to dispose of cases fairly, used his office to advance personal interests and misrepresented his actions, the commission said in a decision released Monday.

In one of the more high-profile charges, the commission ruled that Alred abused his power by appointing a special grand jury in April 2010 to investigate county Judge-Executive Joe Grieshop, who was being opposed for re-election by Alred's cousin.

Alred wrote the order in a way to discredit Grieshop as the election approached, the commission said.

"The actions of (Alred) show a blatant and persistent failure to uphold the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary," the commission said in its order.

The commission also said some of Alred's positions at a hearing on the charges last month were "at best, disingenuous and, at worst, blatant misrepresentations."

The commission convicted Alred on nine of the 20 ethics charges he faced and voted 6-0 to remove him from office.

Each charge dealt with a number of provisions judges are supposed to follow.

Alred continued his fight against the charges Monday, however, filing an appeal with the Kentucky Supreme Court.

The removal order won't take effect during the appeal.

Alred said that the commission's findings were wrong and that chairman Stephen Wolnitzek was biased against him because Alred had criticized the commission's investigator, a friend of Wolnitzek.

The decision to punish Alred was "cut and dried" before the commission heard testimony last month, Alred said.

Political opponents who covet the circuit judge's job fueled the charges against him and used the commission to further their aim, Alred said.

He said that if the state Supreme Court upholds the order to remove him, he will appeal to federal court.

"I'm going to fight it to the bitter end," Alred said.

Jeff Mando, a Covington attorney who prosecuted the charges against Alred, said he will seek an order suspending Alred during his appeal if Alred will not step aside voluntarily until the Supreme Court rules.

"I think the fair and impartial administration of justice in Harlan County is best served if Judge Alred is not deciding cases while his appeal is pending," Mando said.

Mando said there are concerns about how people would view Alred's rulings during his appeal and about possible retaliation by Alred.

Alred said he would act in a professional manner if he stayed on the bench during the appeal.

Mando said Alred's argument that Wolnitzek pushed through a biased decision against him does a disservice to the panel, which includes several judges.

Alred's claims were a desperate attempt to divert attention from the evidence against him, Mando said.

If the Supreme Court upholds the commission's order stripping Alred of his office, senior judges probably would handle cases in Harlan County until Gov. Steve Beshear appointed a replacement.

The charges against Alred have caused a good deal of tension in Harlan County, where even the judge said politics is sometimes a blood sport.

Two of the charges on which he was convicted involved the special grand jury he appointed last year to investigate Grieshop during the Democratic primary for judge-executive.

Sheriff Marvin Lipfird's office had investigated a claim by a female drug addict that Grieshop was giving her pills in return for sex.

Investigators concluded the woman, who was trying to get a break on drug charges, was not credible.

However, Commonwealth's Attorney Henry Johnson and Alred discussed letting a grand jury hear the case to avoid any perception that local officials declined to pursue charges because of Grieshop's position.

The issue blew up politically after Alred issued a public order — before the election in which his cousin opposed Grieshop — to empanel a special grand jury.

The order spelled out that the panel would investigate alleged drug-dealing from Grieshop's office but not until after the election.

That would have left the issue hanging until after the vote.

Alred could have sealed the order or not specified Grieshop was the subject of the inquiry, the conduct commission said.

Alred also knew there was no evidence for an indictment when he called for the special jury, the commission said.

The commission also noted Alred issued the order the same day he saw a sworn statement Grieshop had given, saying that Alred had asked Grieshop to get back some county land leased to another man because Alred wanted to use it for a drug-testing lab.

Alred said he was not motivated by politics or anger to appoint the panel to investigate Grieshop.

However, the commission said it was clear the statement angered Alred.

Johnson presented the matter before the election to a regular grand jury, which cleared Grieshop.

Other charges on which the commission convicted Alred were:

■ He pushed for the county fiscal court to build a water park with $500,000 donated by two doctors convicted in a drug case.

Judges are not supposed to lobby such government bodies that way.

The commission also said Alred filed a court order that misrepresented the facts surrounding an earlier order giving him control of the money.

■ He barred a woman charged with fraud from substitute teaching at an elementary school that Alred's children attended.

Alred took that action without holding a hearing, and there was no basis for the order, the commission said.

■ He urged police to investigate allegations about illegal gambling machines at local businesses, then presided over the case of a man who was charged as a result.

Alred should not have handled the case because his impartiality could reasonably be questioned, the commission said.

■ He filed a complaint against Kentucky Utilities over electricity charges, then asked an attorney for KU for a $12,500 donation for playground equipment at James A. Cawood Elementary School, which Alred's children attended.

The company made the donation before Alred dismissed his complaint.

Alred also raised money from other sources for the playground.

Alred's actions violated fund-raising rules that apply to judges and constituted an improper use of his office, the commission said.

■ He barred a public defender from his court without giving her a chance for hearing.

Alred said that the woman had missed court appearances and that he wanted to make sure defendants were properly represented.

The commission, however, said there was no legal basis for his order.

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