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Pinellas judge may lose job over porn

Circuit Judge Brandt Downey could be fined or removed from office if charges that also include inappropriate e-mails are proven.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published December 21, 2005


LARGO - The agency that oversees the state's judges has charged Pinellas Circuit Judge Brandt Downey with habitually viewing pornography on his office computer, harassing two female attorneys and concealing evidence that a juror slept during a murder trial.

The charges come nearly eight months after the allegations first surfaced. Downey, who announced Friday that he will retire in 2007, could face a fine, reprimand, suspension or removal from office.

"I am saddened at the decision of the Judicial Qualifications Commission to pursue these charges against me in light of my announced retirement," Downey said Tuesday. "I will work toward resolving these problems and allegations in the shortest possible time."

Downey will remain on the civil bench in Clearwater, said Ron Stuart, spokesman for Chief Judge David A. Demers.

Though the St. Petersburg Times has reported the allegations against Downey for months, the document filed by the JQC on Tuesday provides the first official details.

Downey, 60, is accused of "habitual viewing" of pornography on his chambers computer over a three-year period. The viewing was so frequent that Downey's computer contracted viruses that threatened to gum up the entire courthouse's computer network, according to the JQC complaint.

At least twice, technology staffers summoned to Downey's office to fix his computer saw pornography on his monitor, the document states.

In addition, the complaint charges Downey of having "improper contact and communication" with two female attorneys.

In one case, Downey complimented a female attorney on her appearance so often that others in the court system mocked her about it. With the other female lawyer, Downey sent her e-mails that appear sexually suggestive.

"It was nice seeing U in court looking so pretty," Downey wrote in one e-mail. "Look forward to seeing U soon in court, or out. Best regards, Judge D."

In another, Downey wrote: "Was great seeing U last night and again today too. U looked good enuf to . . . Oh well, wishful thinking . . . C U soon I hope."

Public Defender Bob Dillinger said Tuesday he is troubled that Downey will remain in a judicial position where female lawyers will appear before him.

"I would think that would be of a concern to many litigants," he said.

The allegations came to public light soon after Downey took a mysterious leave of absence in April. Demers, who met with Downey before his departure, initially said Downey was enduring personal and family troubles.

Downey returned to the bench about two weeks later, but reports emerged that he was in trouble with pornography and sexual harassment. The JQC began to investigate.

In July, Downey was transferred off the criminal bench he held for 17 years to a position in civil court.

Two months later, the JQC's investigative panel decided to file charges against Downey. It's unclear why it took more than three months for the JQC to file the charges.

Downey announced last week that he would not seek re-election next year and would retire in 2007.

Thomas C. MacDonald Jr., legal counsel to the JQC, said he could not say if there were negotiations between the commission and the judge.

"We have no agreement with Judge Downey," MacDonald said. "Sometimes they settle afterward. But we have no ongoing dialogue with the judge."

Downey will have 20 days to file a response to the charges. He could enter into talks to settle his case, or he could head to a hearing in front of a JQC panel of two judges, two lawyers and two lay people.

"Apparently, that's what he wants," MacDonald said.

Whether a settlement is reached or the case heads to trial, the panel will make a recommendation to the Florida Supreme Court, which ultimately would decide Downey's punishment.

The panel also could dismiss the charges if they feel there isn't enough evidence, said Brooke Kennerly, the JQC's executive director.

"This is just the beginning of the case. These are allegations," she said. "It's just like somebody being arrested. It still has to be proved."

MacDonald said he believes the case will be heard before Downey retires, although there is a chance it might not be until after the judge's retirement.

The complaint filed Tuesday indicates Downey "displayed an inordinate interest" in a first-year female assistant state attorney assigned to Judge Linda Allan's courtroom in 2003 and 2004. Downey sent repeated messages to Allan about the attorney's appearance, according to the complaint.

Downey asked Allan to pass one of the attorney's cases to his division. He sometimes sat in the audience of other courtrooms and watched the attorney's trials, the complaint says. He told her - sometimes at his bench, sometimes in front of others - that she looked pretty. Downey also invited her to lunch, though she declined, the complaint states.

The complaint says it was "not an isolated incident." In 2005, he sent the e-mails to the other female attorney.

Neither attorney is named in the complaint.

As for the pornography, Downey "repeatedly ignored e-mail warnings" that said he could "infect the entire courthouse computer system with unwanted computer viruses," the complaint states.

It's unknown who, in addition to technology staff, may have come to know of Downey's improper computer use, or of his interest in the two attorneys.

Demers, the chief judge, declined comment through a spokesman Tuesday.

Dillinger said his office never would allow an employee to access pornography for three years.

"It clearly should have been stopped one way or the other before three years, particularly when he's handling sex crimes on a regular basis," said Dillinger. "Somebody needed to stop it. It concerns me that my entire system could have been affected by him looking at porno."

Downey also is accused of concealing a note he received from a juror who complained that a fellow juror was sleeping during an April murder trial.

Downey didn't disclose the note to defense attorneys, as he should have. When the attorneys later learned from audience members that a juror was snoozing, they tried to delay a hearing to explore their legal options.

Downey denied the request, saying there wasn't enough evidence of a sleeping juror. The defense later learned about the note from a bailiff who had passed it from the concerned juror to Downey. The judge later said he destroyed the note.

The defendant, Woodrow Wilson, was found guilty of manslaughter. Downey sentenced him to 18 years in prison. Wilson's attorneys have asked for a new trial.

Like some in the courthouse community, Dillinger said he is disturbed it has taken this long for the information about Downey to come out. He said the case, like that of Judge Charles Cope a few years ago, doesn't inspire public confidence in the judiciary.

"I just wish these issues had been resolved in a quicker fashion so that the judiciary of this circuit wasn't cast in such a bad light on such a frequent basis," Dillinger said. "People need to have confidence in the judiciary and these types of issues diminish that confidence."

THE E-MAILS

Here are e-mails Circuit Judge Brandt Downey is alleged to have sent to a female attorney:

It was nice seeing U in court looking so pretty. Look forward to seeing U soon in court, or out. Best regards, Judge D.

Was great seeing U last night and again today too. U looked good enuf to - Oh well, wishful thinking. C U soon I hope.

Source: Judicial Qualifications Commission

[Last modified December 21, 2005, 00:52:16]


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