Judge thrown off bench for witness tampering in wife's federal corruption trial


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 Judge thrown off bench for witness tampering in wife's federal corruption trial

Former utilities executive Stacey Pomrenke enters the federal courthouse in Abingdon, Va., with her husband and then-Judge Kurt Pomrenke before her sentencing on corruption charges in August 2016. Kurt Pomrenkes contacts with witnesses in the case resulted in his expulsion from the bench. His wife is now in prison. (Andre Teague/Bristol Herald Courier)

A juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia was removed from the bench Monday by the Virginia Supreme Court, effective immediately, after he admitted contacting two key witnesses in a pending federal corruption case against his wife.

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Kurt J. Pomrenke, 64, was elected to the bench in 2013 to oversee juvenile and domestic court cases in Washington and Smyth counties and Bristol City along the Virginia-Tennessee border. He is only the second Virginia judge in the last 23 years to be removed by the state Supreme Court, court records show, with the other being a juvenile and domestic judge who resolved some visitation issues with a coin flip.

Pomrenke has also been found guilty of contempt of court by a federal judge in Bristol in connection with his wifes case and is scheduled to be sentenced in that matter on Thursday. His wife, Stacey Pomrenke, the former chief financial officer of Bristol Virginia Utilities, is currently in prison serving a 34-month sentence on multiple charges of conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud as well as contempt of court, in part for her husbands contact with potential witnesses in the case.

The thank you note, and business card, sent by then-Judge Kurt Pomrenke to a potential witness in the case against his wife.Kurt Pomrenke, in a hearing before the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, which handles complaints against judges, conceded that his actions were wrong and violated the state Canons of Judicial Conduct. The canons require judges to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judges activities.” Pomrenke suggested he only be censured, but the Supreme Court felt his actions were “particularly damaging to the integrity of the judicial process and the confidence of the citizens of the Commonwealth that a sitting judge in the Commonwealth would attempt to improperly influence two potential witnesses in his wifes federal criminal trial.”

Pomrenke did not respond to a request for comment. His lawyer, John E. Lichtenstein, said in a statement that Pomrenke was “disappointed but respects the action of the Supreme Court of Virginia”

“He will assess his position, but his focus now is on the needs of his family,”Lichtenstein said in the statement. “He is, and will always be, deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in the 28th Judicial District.”

Pomrenkes downfall began with the 2015 indictment of his wife on 15 corruption-related counts. She had been the chief financial officer of the citys electric, water and sewer utility since 2003, and prosecutors alleged she pressured BVUs vendors for tickets to ballgames and auto races, money to pay for BVU employee parties, awarded bonuses to BVU employees without reporting them for tax purposes, and other executive chicanery. Her husband, a judge and former BVU board member, was granted access to pre-trial discovery in the case over the governments objection.

Three weeks after his wifes indictment, Pomrenke sent a handwritten note to her boss, the BVU chief executive officer Donald L. Bowman, with his business card included in a “Thank You” envelope. “I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your kindness and understanding support for Stacey during these horrible times,” Kurt Pomrenke wrote. “It is horrible what our government is doing to her. She will be proven innocent.”

Bowman is a lawyer and had been cooperating with the widely publicized investigation into corruption at BVU, and had made his cooperation known in the news media, the Supreme Court noted. He was shocked to receive the note from Pomrenke, and drove directly to the U.S. attorneys office in Abingdon, Va., to show it to them. This note, and an email that Stacey Pomrenke sent to five friends asking for their support, caused prosecutors to try to revoke her bond, which the judge denied. Instead, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones charged her with contempt of court for attempted witness tampering. He later found her guilty of this, and added two months to her 32-month corruption sentence in August 2016.

Next, on the eve of his wifes trial in February 2016, then-Judge Pomrenke left a voicemail for a BVU employee expected to testify during the trial. “Hey Connie, this is Kurt,” the judge said, according to the Supreme Court. “Um, when youre testifying in that trial there might be a couple of things that you could do that would really help Stacey. If you could kinda slip in when you have a chance just little remarks like how Stacey did a great job, or Stacey was the one that took care of the employees…just something like that even though its not directly in response to the questions.”

That didnt sit too well with Judge Jones.

Bowman didnt end up testifying in the trial but the employee, Connie Moffatt, did. The jury convicted Stacey Pomrenke on 14 of 15 charges, and three days later the judge directed the government to prosecute her for contempt of court, based on both her email and her husbands contacts with Bowman and Moffatt.

Meanwhile, a complaint was filed with the judicial review commission against Kurt Pomrenke. The judge responded with a three-page letter to the commission explaining his actions, claiming he and his wife “had no idea of Bowmans close continuing relationship with the prosecutors.” He then attached an email written by Bowman which he said was received in his wifes pretrial discovery, even though he had been ordered not to disclose any of that material to anyone.

This caused federal prosecutors to file a motion in July of this year asking for Pomrenke to be held in contempt of court for disclosing the discovery materials. Judge Jones convicted him in September of willfully violating the order not to disclose. “As a lawyer and judge,” Jones said, according to Virginia Lawyers Weekly, “Judge Pomrenke had the maturity, knowledge and legal experience to understand the necessity to obey court orders.” He faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 at sentencing Thursday, though jail seems unlikely.

The state Supreme Court then took up a finding from the judicial review commission that Pomrenke had violated the judicial canons, and had admitted it. “We cannot escape the conclusion,” wrote Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, “that having a sitting judge who apparently attempted to manipulate trial testimony would tend to impair public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of not only that judge, but also that of all the other members of the judiciary, and our entire system of justice…We conclude that Judge Pomrenkes actions are of sufficient gravity to warrant removal.”

L. Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer who writes about Virginias appeals courts, said, “The word that comes to mind is unthinkable. Its something that any judge with a good sense of propriety should know is wrong.” Emmert felt that “if the only issue had been the note to the boss [Bowman], the Supreme Court might have let him off.” But the voicemail to the woman who actually did testify was too much, Emmert said.

Pomrenkes removal leaves only two judges to hear all of the juvenile and domestic cases in two counties and Bristol City, and cases he was currently hearing would be distributed to them. Emmert said the circuit court could appoint a temporary successor, who could either be replaced or elected by the General Assembly next year, or they could leave the spot open until the General Assembly elects a successor, who probably wouldnt take the bench until the spring of next year at the earliest.

The courts opinion terminating Pomrenkes judgeship is below:

By: The Washington Post

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