Proctor targeted on ethics complaint | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Proctor targeted on ethics complaint

Posted By on Thu, Nov 6, 2008 at 3:45 PM

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The long-simmering state Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission investigation of Circuit Judge Willard Proctor's problematic Cycle Breakers probation program finally has broken into public light.

Check it out.

This is messy stuff. Messier even than some of the reporting first done by Mara Leveritt for us on the Little Rock judge. Messier even than a highly critical Legislative Audit review of the program.

The multi-part allegation includes the program itself, his treatment of probationers, "candor," practicing law while on the bench and treatment of staff.

Significant questions: A lack of accounting of money he ordered paid in restitution to crime victims which has not reached the victims and has otherwise been unaccounted for. His program has collected more than $500,000 in five years of operation studied in the probe and has used some of that money to pledge on real estate loans. Proctor himself has received $34,000 for payment of a variety of expenses ranging from church dinners to personal lawn care, moving expenses and a variety of generic reasons unsupported by specific documentation.

Proctor was cited for assessing fees on probationers who missed meetings and ordering the money given to the Cycle Breakers operation he controls, a clear conflict of interest, the report says. He also was cited for his extraordinary "civil probation" program. It has no authority in law. In it, he continues to assess fees on people who've completed probation. He holds hearings without defendants' lawyers or prosecutors present. No records are kept of these sessions.Probationers have complained of unending fees assessed by the judge for Cycle Breakers, adding up to tens of thousands of dollars, according to the report. Those who don't pay are often jailed, thus suffering criminal penalties for civil violations, a practice long held to be illegal in the U.S.

A staff member accused Proctor of helping run a catfish restaurant in which he had an interest by instant messaging from the bench.

He was also cited for "inappropriate relationships" with probationers, including one convict to whom he'd sent money while in prison and who lived with Proctor for three weeks while he was on probation.

He was cited for poor treatment of staff. Among the episodes listed was his previously reported firing of a court reporter who said she couldn't attend a staff retreat in Dallas on account of illness. He reportedly told one staff member she was "evil" and the "devil" and cursed her "in the name of Jesus." Testimony also was given that Proctor had listened in on phone calls between a young man living with him in a Big Brothers mentoring program and the young man's girlfriend.

Staff members accused Proctor of knowingly misleading the Quorum Court about the type of inmates in his Cycle Breakers program during the controversy that arose over his efforts to buy a building for the program near an elementary school in eastern Little Rock. He said sex offenders weren't enrolled, though they were.

The judicial complaint against Proctor, which he'll be able to contest before the commission, has been attended by an extraordinary secret legal action that only the Arkansas Blog has reported previously. Proctor has been litigating under seal with the Arkansas Supreme Court in an effort to quash the investigation or, failing that, keep it under wraps. We reported previously that Proctor had celebrated an earlier split decision by the Supreme Court -- issued under seal -- not to temporarily remove him from the bench on account of the severity of the allegations. It was not the end of his troubles, however.

The release of documents today indicate that Proctor has hit at least a temporary dead-end with the Court and that it has allowed the normal judicial investigative process to go forward.

As a technical matter, the commission has issued notice of a formal disciplinary hearing against Proctor in an investigation begun last year. A date for the hearing has not been set. The investigation has found probable cause to believe that he's violated ethical rules. He disputes those findings and now will be given a chance to contest them in a public hearing. The commission could eventually uphold the findings and set punishment ranging from a letter of caution to removal from the bench.

The allegations outlined suggest the most serious sanction could be a possibility, if the findings are upheld.

No one answered the phone at Proctor's office this afternoon. The same at the office of his lawyer Blake Hendrix.

From my own reporting, I know this is but the tip of an iceberg about Proctor's extraordinary operation of this program. He has designs on expanding it beyond Pulaski County, a design that might be delayed by this investigation.

Final note: A newly elected Little Rock district judge, Mark Leverett, was private attorney for Proctor for an extended perioid and represented Cycle Breakers when it was fighting Freedom of Information Act requests related to its efforts to buy a building and start a program near the elementary school. He's not mentioned in today's report. But he undoubtedly figures at least as a role player in the deeper narrative of Cycle Breakers operation.

UPDATE: A bit of analysis. My sources say a federal investigation of this matter likely won't lead to a criminal prosecution. But might an enterprising lawyer have a class action civil rights suit on behalf of the dozens of people sent to jail for non-payment of illegal civil penalties? I don't think a judge enjoys immunity for extralegal actions taken outside the scope of his employment.

The investigation found that Cycle Breakers, nominally an independent nonprofit, had become "the full-time alter ego" of the judge and was controlled by his hand-picked directors. He has not dealt with it at arms length and this has created continuing conflict-of-interest problems, the investigation said. He controls its money and its spending and he controls probationers assigned there. It has exclusive duties for probationers in his court. Virtually all other courts in the state use the state probation system rather than their own independent operations. All this "casts a shadow" on his impartiality as judge.

The report says the judge has "subverted" purchasing rules to spend probationer fees on court expenses.

He controls check signing by Cycle Breakers, the report said, and has requested signed blank checks to use.

In response to the report that Proctor hadn't been truthful to the Quorum Court and other findings, JP Phil Stowers said:

"I have had great reservations about the commingling of  funds between his court and Cycle Breakers. I don't think Judge  Proctor is dishonest or lacks integrity. I think his problem is he  doesn't cross his t's and dot his i's.... I think he is a good man at   heart, but I just think you should avoid the appearance of evil. "

Stowers said he was one of those not in favor of Proctor purchasing the building for Cycle Breakers.

"My only thought would be that I don't know how we gauge somebody's intent," Stowers said, adding that Proctor may not have known about  the sex offenders in Cycle Breakers when he spoke to the JPs. If  Proctor did seek to purposefully mislead the QC, Stowers said, "that would be a very serious issue."

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