Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Because I write about crime, I am often asked if I've ever been threatened. For years, I've answered no.
But last year, after I'd written an article about Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor Jr., I received an anonymous call. The voice on the phone claimed personal knowledge of Proctor's court and warned me that the judge had recently assembled his probation officers. “He had them get in a circle and pray that you'd be struck dead,” the voice said matter-of-factly. “I thought you should know.”
Ordinarily, I'd shrug off such a preposterous claim from someone unwilling to give me a name. But I took this call seriously for a few reasons. First, members of Proctor's staff who were reluctant to be interviewed told me it was because they'd been threatened by the judge. Second, I knew he was under pressure; he was being investigated by the FBI. And third, his probation officers carry guns.
I reported the call to the police and to the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC), the agency that oversees judges. Ironically, that was the first time I'd ever felt such a need — and it was because of a judge.
A little more than a year later, the JDDC sent a letter to Proctor, notifying him that it appeared that his conduct had gotten way out of line. He was accused of several violations of the judicial canons, the rules that govern judges' behavior. The statement of charges ran several pages, but a couple of the lesser ones struck a personal chord.
According to the statement of charges sent to Proctor, one of his former employees, Alice Abson, told the JDDC that she had enjoyed working for the judge at first, but that “things started to go bad” when she'd warned him that he might be violating the Judicial Code of Conduct.
Specifically, Abson said she worried about the way Proctor's role as judge had become enmeshed with his role as de facto president of Cycle Breakers Inc., a non-profit corporation he founded to help rehabilitate persons he placed on probation. Abson saw a problem in Proctor's mixing of his roles as sentencing judge and controller of Cycle Breakers' money.
After she raised the issue with him, the JDDC reported: “The judge stated that he ‘hated' Ms. Abson in staff meetings and referred to some of his staff as ‘devils.' ”
Another employee, Sally Porter, Proctor's case coordinator, reportedly voiced similar concerns. The report said the judge then “called Ms. Porter evil and a devil, saying to her, ‘Lord, bind you up, because you are nothing but the devil! I curse you in the name of Jesus!' ”
That is unusual language to appear in any official document. But then, little about Proctor's court fits the norm.
His is one of only two courts in the state that are allowed to supervise the defendants they sentence to probation. (Probationers from the state's other 118 circuit courts are supervised by the Arkansas Department of Community Correction.)
And Proctor is the only judge who orders his probationers to attend meetings conducted by Cycle Breakers Inc., a corporation that the JDDC charged “has turned into a full-time alter ego of Judge Proctor and [his] Fifth Division Circuit Court.”
The most serious charges that Proctor now faces concern exactly what his staff members reportedly warned him about. Specifically, the JDDC informed Proctor that it is wrong for him to be:
• ordering probationers from his court to attend meetings run by a corporation he controls;
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