A northeastern Indiana judge who intervened on behalf of an employee of his drug court in a dispute with other county officials over her benefits committed judicial misconduct, an agency of the Indiana Supreme Court alleged Friday.
The Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed an ethics complaint against Adams Superior Judge Patrick R. Miller over his direct and personal involvement in litigation against the county auditor, council and other officials on behalf of Kelly Sickafoose, who in 2015 was hired as a contractor with Adams County Drug Court, which Miller supervised. Sickafoose and Miller, the complaint says, “knew each other socially and through his community activities with Drug Free Adams County” before she was hired.
According to a notice of the institution of formal proceedings and statement of charges, Miller, an 11-year veteran of the Adams Superior bench, faces three counts of judicial misconduct. He allegedly “abused the prestige of judicial office” by trying to influence a special judge on Sickafoose’s behalf; injected himself into a legal dispute between Sickafoose and other county officials; and abused his authority by threatening the Adams County auditor, council and commissioners with civil or criminal contempt charges if they didn’t agree to pay Sickafoose to settle her claims.
The dispute arose over whether Sickafoose was a contract employee or a full-time employee of drug court, entitled to FICA, PERF and other public-employee benefits, as Miller argued — and ultimately ordered — about a year after the county drug court was awarded a grant of more than $514,000 from the Department of Correction. Miller ordered auditor Mary Beery to pay benefit deductions for Sickafoose from the proceeds of the grant.
After the auditor refused to pay Sickafoose public-employee benefits because she was still classified as a contract employee, Miller opened a case captioned In the matter of Mary Beery, Auditor of Adams County, IN, in which he ordered Beery to pay claims submitted on behalf of Sickafoose, alleging he had reclassified her to a full-time court employee. Beery’s failure to do so, Miller warned in the written order, “will subject the Auditor of Adams County, Indiana to indirect criminal contempt proceeding including the possibility of fines, incarceration or both.”
Ultimately, a special judge was appointed, but after the auditor moved to dismiss the case, Miller wrote a letter to the special judge, Thomas Hakes, in which he alleged the auditor’s failure to timely pay claims “may have crippled Drug Court’s ability to financially function unless you sanction the Auditor financially in order to compensate Drug Court for the monies the Auditor cost Drug Court.” (In an unrelated matter, Hakes faced allegations of sexual harassment of a court employee and retired from the bench. The harassment case settled.)
Finally, the commission said, Miller sent an email to auditor Beery’s counsel, Mark Burry, and Sickafoose’s counsel, J. Michael Loomis, offering to settle claims against the county arising from Sickafoose’s matter. Among other things, Miller sought payment of all claims he approved and submitted for court staff, along with $20,000 for Sickafoose. He also proposed that “Mary Beery will issue a public apology for calling my Drug Court a ‘nightmare.’”
In exchange, Miller said he would resolve the litigation he filed and would drop any civil or criminal contempt claims against the auditor and members of the county council and commissioners. As part of the settlement, Miller also proposed, “All parties participate in a joint press release as to the positive benefits and impact Drug Court is having in Adams County.”
“I wish to put this continuing struggles (sic) behind all of us,” Miller concluded in his email.
But Miller’s court actions on Sickafoose’s behalf had results opposite those intended. After he ordered Beery to pay claims, the auditor won an emergency writ of mandamus and prohibition from the Indiana Supreme Court, staying all proceedings. However, the emergency writ was dissolved a few days later.
Including Hakes, a procession of special judges was appointed, then recused, until Special Judge Kenton Kiracofe assumed jurisdiction. After a hearing, he granted the auditor’s motion to dismiss and ordered Sickafoose to pay more than $16,000 in attorney fees for litigation found to be “frivolous, unreasonable, and groundless.”
A divided Indiana Court of Appeals affirmed and remanded for an additional award of attorney fees in Kelly Sickafoose v. Mary Beery, Auditor of Adams County, 18A-MI-1549.
Friday’s order from the Commission on Judicial Qualifications gives Miller 20 days to respond.