Hammond City Judge Jeffrey A. Harkin faces three misconduct charges for operating an illegal traffic school deferral program and dismissing cases without collecting required fees, as well as dissuading one litigant from contesting a seatbelt violation in court.
The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed formal charges against the city judge June 30, accusing him of going above state law in creating a deferral program that only a prosecutor is legally allowed to operate and not following the statutory framework for how courts assess and collect costs.
Judge Harkin has been on the bench since April 2001, and these allegations relate to his conduct beginning in 2005.
Two of the professional misconduct charges involve the judge referring hundreds of litigants to the traffic classes and then later dismissing their infractions on the condition that they complete those classes.
Hammond City Court Traffic School was usually taught by city police officers at the court. Judge Harkin would tell the litigants that their cases would be dismissed and no points assessed on their driver’s licenses if they paid an administrative fee and successfully completed the traffic school class, the complaint says.
That practice was in place from 2005 to early 2011. An administrative fee of $75 per litigant was charged from 2005 to 2009, and it increased to $100 starting last year. Instead of distributing money to the state, county, and city as required, the judge unlawfully distributed 60 percent of the administrative fee to Hammond for rental of the meeting rooms and 40 percent to the Northwest Indiana Traffic School to administer the program.
An estimated $180,000 in fees should have been distributed to the state and county between January 2010 and March 2011, according to the charging document.
Despite annual audit warnings from the State Board of Accounts from 2005 to 2010, Judge Harkin continued operating the school and not assessing the required court costs against those defendants who successfully completed the courses, the complaint says.
A third misconduct charge stems from an August 2010 seatbelt violation case. Defendant Matthew Aubrey alleged the judge made inappropriate comments to him and dissuaded him from contesting the ticket in court. When the judge called Aubrey’s name for the hearing to begin, the man said he had paperwork and legal analysis to support his defense against the ticket. Judge Harkin rolled his eyes and asked Aubrey if he was an attorney, the charges say, and then the judge suggested Aubrey should not exercise his right to trial. In part, Judge Harkin said it would cost “10 times more than the original ticket” because of court and legal costs, and that convinced Aubrey to admit the infraction.
The judicial qualifications commission alleges that Judge Harkin routinely acted without appropriate statutory or other legal authority in regard to the traffic school program and in not assessing the required court costs, as well as violating the conduct rules with his statements and conduct during the Aubrey proceedings.
This isn’t the first court-administered driving school that’s been questioned in Lake County.
Five years ago, Lake Superior Judge Julie Cantrell drew the attention of state judicial officials after concerns arose about the legality of her dismissing tickets of defendants who paid for traffic classes. Allegations surfaced that she was not reporting proceeds from that deferral program to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles and instead was funneling that money to other locations. Judge Cantrell denied any wrongdoing, but she eventually shut the program down after the judicial qualifications commission publicly cautioned her for improperly using those fees to give her staff $20,700 in salary bonuses.
In 2004, former Schererville Town Judge Deborah Riga was indicted for extortion and fraud based on kickbacks received from more than 1,000 defendants she’d sentenced to driving school and counseling classes through a program she secretly owned and from which she personally profited. She received a 15-month federal prison sentence in 2008 and was ordered to pay $12,120 in restitution to the town and state.
Judge Harkin has 20 days from June 30 to file an answer, though it’s not required. The Indiana Supreme Court can then appoint three masters to hear the evidence and conduct a hearing if no settlement is reached. The state’s justices have final authority on any agreement or disciplinary decision, and if any misconduct is found the Supreme Court would be responsible for imposing sanctions. Judge Harkin has no previous disciplinary history, according to the Indiana Supreme Court Roll of Attorneys.•