Kentucky judge accused of multiple ethics violations, including alcohol-fueled threesomes with staffers at work


Bill Estep, Lexington Herald-Leader

A Kentucky judge engaged in sexual activity with staff members in the courthouse, coerced attorneys to back her election and retaliated against a lawyer for not giving her the maximum campaign donation, a state panel has charged.

The Judicial Conduct Commission released nine charges on Wednesday against Judge Dawn M. Gentry, a family-court judge in Kenton County.

The commission enforces ethics rules that govern judges’ conduct. If the panel decides a judge broke the rules, it can impose penalties ranging from a reprimand to removal from office.

Gentry’s attorney filed a response denying she had sex with staffers at work or took part in any wrongdoing.

The response acknowledged that Gentry made changes to fix some issues cited in the complaint, barring employees from drinking alcohol at the office, for example.

Gentry did not know employees had been keeping alcohol at the office or drinking, her response said.

The commission charged that Gentry broke a laundry list of rules, engaging “in a pattern of conduct that constitutes misconduct in office.”

Several charges related to her election campaign in 2018. Gentry had been appointed to the job earlier but was running to keep it.

The complaint alleged that Gentry coerced people on a court panel to give her the maximum legal donations and to campaign for her; asked a lawyer in court to put up a campaign sign for her; and used court employees to do campaign functions on work time, such as delivering signs.

Gentry also appointed a woman to the panel in exchange for her husband’s pledge to support Gentry, the commission charged.

The court panel at issue in the case is the guardian ad litem panel, made up of attorneys a judge appoints to represent the best interests of children in dependency, abuse and neglect cases. They can also be appointed in divorce and custody cases.

Panel members get paid for their work.

The Judicial Conduct Commission charged that Gentry violated nine ethics rules on that charge alone.

One was a rule requiring judges to act in a way that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and to avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.

Another was a rule that requires judges to make appointments based on merit, not nepotism or favoritism in making appointments.

The commission said Gentry appointed people to the panel based on considerations other than merit and assigned cases to them before they’d had required training.

The commission alleged that Gentry retaliated against a woman for not showing sufficient support for her election, and against a lawyer for not giving her the maximum donation.

Gentry also delayed hearing dates in cases handled by attorneys she felt didn’t do enough to support her in the campaign, the commission charged.

Another charge was that Gentry knowingly approved false time cards for employees; left the office unattended while she went to lunch with staff members; brought her children to work with her on one occasion and allowed one to witness a confidential proceeding; and allowed one employee to “spend work hours playing his guitar and singing in his office, disrupting other court employees during the workday.”

The commission also alleged that Gentry on multiple occasions held conferences with her guardian ad litem panel without involving lawyers representing people in the cases.

In another charge, the commission said Gentry made inappropriate and unwelcome sexual advances to a female attorney, then sent someone to talk with the attorney and accuse her of gossiping about Gentry.

That could be reasonably interpreted as warning the lawyer “to remain quiet regarding sexual advances,” the commission said.

The commission also charged that Gentry hired a man because she was involved in a sexual relationship with him, forcing a female employee to quit in order to make a position for him, and that she took part in sexual activity at the office, during the work day, with him and with a female employee.

Finally, the commission said Gentry was not honest during a previous inquiry.

Gentry said in a response submitted by her attorney, Stephen P. Ryan, that she did not pressure people for donations, couldn’t recall asking a lawyer in court to put up a sign for her, did not intentionally use employees for campaign work on state time and didn’t appoint a woman to the guardian ad litem panel in return for her husband’s support.

Gentry said she did not retaliate against anyone over a perceived lack of political support.

Gentry said she approved time sheets for employees but did not fill them out, taking their word on their hours because they are professionals.

Gentry has changed the procedure, her response said.

Gentry acknowledged that at one point she and staffers were allowed to bring their children to work in have-to cases, and that a child did witness a confidential proceeding, but said she had changed that practice as well.

As to the staffer playing his guitar in the office — the same man with whom she was allegedly sexually involved — Gentry said she didn’t realize it was disturbing others.

“There is no longer guitar playing in her office,” the response said.

Gentry denied having conferences without lawyers who should have been involved; making unwanted sexual advances to a female attorney; putting unqualified people on the guardian ad litem panel; and being dishonest with the commission.

And Gentry strongly denied the allegations of having sex at the office, capitalizing that part of her response.

“SHE DENIES HAVING A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP” with the male or female employee, “inside or outside of the courthouse,” the response said.

The commission has not yet scheduled a hearing for Gentry.

In its most recent public action before releasing charges against Gentry, the commission reprimanded a circuit judge who allegedly used her authority to try to help her ex-husband in a drug case.

The commission said Beth Maze, who was a judge in Rowan, Bath, Menifee and Montgomery counties, deserved to be removed from office, but she resigned before the commission ruled.

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