Pike County Circuit Judge Steven D. Combs engaged in improper political activities, threatened local officials and presided over a lawsuit against a company even though he had a financial relationship with the business, a state ethics panel has charged.
The Judicial Conduct Commission also charged that Combs made harassing phone calls to local officials; demeaned his office by making derogatory comments about officials, calling one "Dumbo" and another "Fishface"; and told a police captain that the next officer who pulled him over would get a "bullet in the head."
The commission released 10 formal charges against Combs on Wednesday.
Combs denied most of the allegations and said he disagreed with the characterization of his comments to police.
However, he admitted leaving phone messages for state Sen. Ray Jones, a Pikeville attorney, calling Jones derogatory names.
One of Combs' attorneys, Kent Wicker, said Combs "looks forward to addressing these charges" with the commission and would have no comment outside the proceedings.
Combs has asked the commission to dismiss the charges.
The chairman of the conduct commission, Stephen D. Wolnitzek, said the next step in the process would be a formal hearing on the charges. It could be late summer before the commission holds the hearing, Wolnitzek said.
The commission has the power to impose a range of sanctions on Combs, from a reprimand to an unpaid suspension or even removal from office.
The commission has removed only four judges from office since 1984.
Combs, a former mayor and city commission member in Pikeville, has been a circuit judge since mid-2003. He does not have to step down while the charges are pending.
The commission charged that Combs committed misconduct and violated a range of ethics rules that require judges to uphold high standards of conduct, not undermine public confidence in the judiciary, and conduct outside activities in a way that won't create reasonable doubt about their ability to be impartial in court.
One charge was that Combs presided over a lawsuit against EQT Production, an oil and gas company, for more than three years even though the company was paying him royalties for production on his property.
At one point during the case, Combs made a belligerent call to an EQT official, accused him of fraud over unpaid royalties and threatened to lock the company out of his land, the conduct commission charged.
Combs eventually removed himself from the case. He said in his response that he had disclosed his contract with EQT at the start of the case, and denied his call to the company was hostile.
The commission charged that Combs made a number of inappropriate calls to Pikeville police, citing examples in which he accused officers of making false charges; arresting a city commission candidate for political purposes; and not doing enough to stop people from parking in the private lot of the church Combs attends.
Combs allegedly made the remark about shooting a police officer when he called last Dec. 30 to demand police investigate automated calls he had received about drinking and driving during the holidays.
When he was confronted about the remark, according to the charge, Combs said, "I'm elected by the people and not pieces of trash like you all," and then called the department a bunch of thieves.
Combs admitted making calls to the police, but disagreed with how they were characterized in the charges, his attorneys said in his response.
The city's attorney, Russell H. Davis Jr., told the Herald-Leader that the city police force is well-trained and accredited, and that city officials do not believe officers engaged in the improper conduct Combs alleged in his calls.
The commission also charged Combs with making "harassing and contentious" phone calls to city officials and with using official letterhead paper from his office for letters to officials on issues not related to his office.
In April 2012, Combs threatened legal action against city employees for enforcing an ordinance that resulted in a fine against his mother-in-law and said he would rule against the city in cases under that law, the commission charged.
The commission also charged that Combs made inappropriate calls to the manager of a local public-access television channel to complain about shows and threatened to try to get its broadcast license revoked.
The commission cited several instances in which Combs allegedly chastised local officials about supporting certain political candidates.
The charges also said he requested a permit so a candidate for mayor could use a golf cart to get around during the local Hillbilly Days festival last year, and asked a local official to attend a fundraiser for the candidate.
Combs said he later called the official back and told him not to attend the fundraiser.
Judges are not supposed to publicly endorse or oppose political candidates.
Combs denied posting comments on the gossip website Topix, under user names such as "Imma Tellinyou," that disparaged Pikeville officials and called them names.
"Fishface will do whatever a certain commissioner tells him to do," one post said in reference to an elected city official.
Another charge accused Combs of soliciting money for a local high school golf team from attorneys who practice in his court. Combs said he did not do that.
The commission also charged that Combs openly expressed interest in city commission races on the ballot last November and criticized incumbents.
Despite that, Combs presided over a challenge that arose from the election, removing an incumbent and putting a challenger in office, the conduct commission said.
Among other things, Combs in that case violated a rule that bars judges from being swayed by partisan interests and another that requires judges to give up a case if their impartiality could reasonably be questioned, the commission alleged.
In his response, Combs denied he had expressed interest in the outcome of the city commission races or criticized incumbents in any public forum.
Combs has been in front of the conduct commission before. It publicly reprimanded him in 2006 after he was charged with drunken driving on the Mountain Parkway. Police said Combs' blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the limit at which drivers are deemed drunk.