CHARLESTON – The state Legislative Auditor has sent a letter to the Judicial Investigation Commission, seeking greater assurance that the commission is considering allegations that Logan Circuit Judge Eric O’Briant interfered with the county’s school board.
In the July 14 letter, Aaron Allred wrote that he understood that O’Briant’s public admonishment was a proposed disposition contingent on O’Briant’s acceptance and he looked forward to news of his decision, however, he found several things that brought him great concern about how the commission will handle other complaints still pending against O’Briant.
“According to Footnote 2 of the Amended Public Admonishment, JIC Counsel informed Judge O’Briant on December 5, 2016, that Counsel would not file an ethics complaint against him if the judge immediately countermanded his September 12, 2016, order concerning the unlicensed attorney, Mr. Thompson,” Allred wrote. “JIC Counsel further informed the judge that if a member of the public filed a complaint, the JIC would ‘be free to take whatever actions it deemed appropriate.’’
Allred states that he and one of his attorneys provided a copy of the Sept. 12 order to the JIC, along with other records that appeared to show that an unlicensed individual was representing clients in Logan Magistrate Court under O’Briant’s authorization.
“Yet it appears that the JIC did not look into the extend of this problem until four months later when Senator Richard Ojeda…submitted a written complaint alleging the same information that I had provided,” Allred wrote.
Allred wrote that his counsel has advised him that the JIC and the JIC’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel have authority to initiate investigations with regard to alleged violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct and that the JIC had written evidence that an unlicensed individual was representing criminal defendants.
“Why did the JIC not look into any potentially adverse consequences of this situation before deferring the matter to an informal disposition?” Allred wrote. “I find it troubling that, but for the filing of Senator Ojeda’s complaint alleging the very same facts four months later, no inquiry would have been conducted.”
Allred wrote that last July, members of the newly-elected Logan County Board of Education approached him , after being referred by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, concerning allegations of threatening and retaliatory conduct by O’Briant.
“The individuals clearly feared additional reprisals from Judge O’Briant merely for raising their concerns,” he wrote. “I explained to them that it was appropriate to pursue these allegations through the JIC and assured them that the JIC would investigate these allegations fully, fairly and carefully.”
Allred wrote that the individuals filed complaints in late July 2016 that he believes are still pending.
“I understand that, since those filings, the complainants may have additional evidence that deserves a thorough investigation,” he wrote.
On his own, Allred sent copies of other documents on Aug. 29, 2016, to the JIC’s counsel along with a list of reasons to believe that an unknown person fabricated a letter, purporting to be written by the superintendent of Logan County Schools, on demonstrably counterfeited letterhead.
“This evidence also showed that Judge O’Briant submitted that letter to the Administrative Director of the Supreme Court of Appeals to explain the termination of Ashley Collier, Truancy Officer for Logan County Schools.”
Allred has concerns that Collier was fired in retaliation for the Logan School Board’s firing of O’Briant’s daughter’s law firm.
“When I provided this information to the JIC, I believed it would be considered evidence relevant to the other pending complaints against Judge O’Briant, and, therefore, would be duly investigated,” he wrote.
Allred wrote that to the anxious individuals who stepped forward to question the alleged unethical actions of a state judge, he gave his assurance that the JIC would investigate those allegations fully, fairly and carefully.
“It is my hope that the JIC will, in fact, do this with their complaints and with the additional information my office has provided,” Allred wrote.