Friday, December 16, 2011

Feud puts court cases on hold - Nevada

By Jeff German

Fallout from a budding romantic relationship between a former prosecutor and Family Court Judge Steven Jones is now causing delays in child abuse and neglect cases.

And a longtime child advocate is blaming the judge for the disruptions and calling for his removal from hearing all child welfare cases.

The disruptions are the result of a rift between District Attorney David Roger and Jones over the judge's relationship with Lisa Willardson, who as a prosecutor made regular court appearances before Jones. Roger fired Willardson, a deputy in the district attorney's child welfare unit, on Tuesday. She insisted Thursday that she never made appearances before Jones while in a relationship with him.

Jones, 53, last week issued an order banning from his courtroom the two prosecutors in the unit who exposed his courtship of Willardson, creating confusion within the district attorney's office on how to move forward with abuse and neglect cases.

"He should know better," said Donna Coleman, co-founder and former member of the nonprofit Children's Advocacy Alliance. "There are children in foster care waiting to go home for Christmas, and they have to deal with this nonsense.

"The No. 1 priority should be the children, and I am very disgusted by the posturing and game-playing that is going on down there. It's a waste of time. It's a waste of money and, more than anything, they're victimizing children who have already been victimized."

Coleman, who ends a two-year term at the end of the month as a member of the Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission, said she will file a complaint against Jones with the panel if he is not removed from all child welfare cases.

Chief District Judge Jennifer Togliatti, who has authority to reassign Jones at Family Court, declined to comment Thursday.

Togliatti is presiding over a hearing Tuesday on a motion by Roger to disqualify Jones from a child welfare case because of his "personal bias" against Roger's two whistle-blowing deputies. The court filing amounts to a test case on whether Jones has compromised his ability to make decisions on child welfare matters involving the district attorney's office.

Jones is preparing his written response. He did not return phone calls Thursday.

Roger filed the motion this week after Jones issued the courtroom ban on the two deputy district attorneys, Michelle Edwards and Janne Hanrahan. In his order, Jones cited the "inappropriate and unprofessional behavior" of the two deputies.

Edwards and Hanrahan had provided supervisors with a clandestine photo taken of Willardson and Jones appearing cozy with each other at a public function.

Concerns were subsequently raised within the district attorney's office that the relationship invited a professional conflict of interest for both Willardson and Jones, and Willardson was removed before her firing from handling child abuse and neglect cases in front of Jones.

Willardson said in an email Thursday that the allegations in Roger's court papers are "factually incorrect" and read like a "story from the Enquirer."

She contends she was removed from the child welfare unit before she struck up a relationship with Jones.

"The district attorney's office simply does not want to address the real issue that two of their deputy district attorneys drank way too much alcohol, took a photograph of a District Court judge's crotch and hand, disseminated it around the courthouse and manufactured a relationship in order to downplay the disgraceful behavior of their deputies," Willardson said.

Jones also said earlier this week that "falsehoods" were being spread about him.

On Thursday, the fallout over the relationship caused delays in 34 child abuse and neglect cases being heard by Brigid Duffy, a Family Court hearing master who works under Jones' supervision.

When Edwards showed up to handle the cases, Duffy said that under Jones' order, Edwards was prohibited from practicing before her. Duffy read a statement in each case explaining the ban.

Roger's office did not send a prosecutor to take Edwards' place, forcing Duffy to continue the cases. Some were delayed a week and others two weeks.

"This is additional evidence that Judge Jones is abusing his power," Roger said after learning of the delays. "Some entity is going to have to step in and rein him in."

Earlier this week, Roger called Jones a "bully" who was trying to ruin the careers of Edwards and Hanrahan. Jones said he was troubled that Roger was "condoning" the "inappropriate and unprofessional" behavior of his deputies.


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