Politics & Government

Pike County judge suspended without pay for six months to settle ethics complaint

Pike Circuit Judge Steven Combs, left, attended a hearing with his lawyer, Richard Getty.
Pike Circuit Judge Steven Combs, left, attended a hearing with his lawyer, Richard Getty. Herald-Leader

PIKEVILLE — An ethics complaint against Pike Circuit Judge Steven D. Combs ended Monday with an agreement for Combs to be suspended without pay for six months and evaluated for a possible alcohol problem.

Combs, 55, agreed to follow any treatment recommendation from a state program that helps judges and lawyers with substance-abuse problems, said Jeffrey C. Mando, the attorney for the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission.

Mando said witnesses were prepared to testify that they thought Combs was drunk at times when he made harassing and threatening phone calls. Such calls were at issue in some of the ethics charges against Combs.

However, Combs' attorney, Richard A. Getty, said he had Combs evaluated, and specialists said he does not have an alcohol-abuse problem.

"He does not have a drinking problem — period," Getty said.

The commission filed 13 ethics charges against Combs this year, then suspended him with pay in June. The charges were administrative, not criminal.

The commission was set to begin hearing testimony against Combs on Monday in a courtroom one floor down from where he normally presides.

The ethics case had caused some division in town, with a number of prominent attorneys and officials called as potential witnesses for or against Combs.

However, attorneys for Combs and the commission worked out the agreement for his suspension before any testimony before the ethics panel.

As part of the agreement, Combs pledged not to retaliate against anyone who filed an ethics complaint against him or gave information to the commission.

The commission had the power to remove Combs from office after the hearing. It has stripped only four judges of office since 1984, most recently in 2011.

Stephen D. Wolnitzek, longtime chairman of the commission, said the panel voted 5-1 to accept the suspension for Combs.

One member wanted Combs suspended for a year, Wolnitzek said.

Combs was a city commission member and mayor in Pikeville before being appointed circuit judge in 2003. He has since won elections to keep the job.

At the hearing Monday, Combs acknowledged he made harassing or contentious phone calls to city officials about several things, including a fine against his mother-in-law over a city ordinance, and that he used his official stationery to send city officials requests for information on nonjudicial matters.

Combs said he didn't recall calling city officials derogatory names such as "cokehead" and "dumbo," as the commission charged, but he said there was a good-faith basis for the charges.

He also admitted making improper calls to officers at the Pikeville Police Department, accusing them of making false arrests, hectoring them over people parking in the private lot of the church he attends, and calling police thieves and trash.

The conduct commission charged that in one case Combs told a police captain that the next officer who pulled Combs over would get a "bullet in the head."

Combs said he did not recall that remark or calling officers names, but again acknowledged there was a basis for the charge.

The longtime judge also acknowledged he presided over cases involving Equitable Production, an oil and gas exploration company, without disclosing in the court record that he had a business relationship with the company.

Combs is part owner of a company that leased drilling rights to Equitable. He allegedly made a belligerent call to Equitable at one point, accusing the company of shorting him on lease payments during a time the company had a case in his court, though he gave up that case.

Combs said that his tie to the company was well known and that he thought he had disclosed it properly.

Combs also acknowledged a charge that he improperly took part in political activity, including chastising people for supporting certain candidates.

He criticized city commission members before the 2014 election and expressed an interest in the outcome, but then he presided over a lawsuit challenging the election and disqualified a candidate, according to the charges.

The commission dismissed a charge that Combs posted improper comments on the gossip website Topix, and parts of two other charges were dismissed.

The counts that remained charged that Combs violated a range of ethics standards, including rules requiring judges to uphold high standards of conduct, to act in a way that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system, to not use the authority of the office to advance private interests, to dispose of cases promptly and fairly, and to give up any case in which the judge's impartiality might be reasonably questioned.

Combs will begin his six-month unpaid suspension after the commission files a formal order.

Getty had argued that a number of allegedly improper calls Combs made were protected by his rights as a private citizen.

He also argued that the commission's investigator ignored evidence favorable to Combs and that Mando, the attorney for the judicial conduct commission, had a conflict of interest because he had a case pending before Combs.

Mando said that he had no conflict of interest because he didn't decide the charges against Combs and that Combs' accusation of misconduct was baseless.

After the settlement was announced Monday, Getty said he thought that the complaints against Combs were politically motivated and that he should not have been charged. "We worked a compromise here in order to keep a good judge sitting on the bench here in Pike County," Getty said.

But Mando said Combs' acknowledgement of violations of ethics rules should dispel any notion that the case was politically motivated.

"This was not about politics" but rather Combs' acts and his obligation to follow the rules, Mando said.

The purpose of the discipline process is to protect the integrity of the judiciary, Mando said.

"I think this agreement today helps us restore that," he said.