CHARLESTON – The Judicial Investigation Commission of West Virginia has published recommendations for public admonishments for two Kanawha magistrates.
The admonishments were released on Oct. 31 and Nov. 2 for Magistrates Brent L. Hall and Tim Halloran.
Hall came under scrutiny when he posted a photo on Facebook showing him seated in Day Court conducting the initial appearance for Tracie Williams.
Williams was arrested on Sept. 5 on felony charges of financial exploitation of the elderly, obtaining money by false pretenses, conspiracy, forgery and computer fraud for allegedly forging her dying mother’s will to receive more than $1 million.
Williams was arraigned on the charges in Kanawha County Day Court and WSAZ-TV was present for and filmed the arraignment. Later that day, the news station ran a story about Williams.
At some point that evening, Hall posted a still photo from WSAZ-TV’s video on his Facebook that was of the initial appearance in Day Court with the caption underneath reading “Police: Woman Exploits Over One Million Dollars from Dying Mom” and the news logo appeared to the right of the heading.
On Sept. 11, the Judicial Disciplinary Counsel asked Hall to reply to the allegations contained in the ethics complaint. He responded on Sept. 15.
“I deny the allegations brought before me,” he wrote. “I have not made any comment about any pending/impending matter. I have posted a still photo shot of myself without any comment, opinion, or statement. I ask that this complaint be dismissed.”
The commission voted 8-0 that probable cause does exist n the instant complaint and that Hall violated seven rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct. The commission determined that formal discipline was not appropriate under the circumstances, but warranted a public admonishment.
“Respondent said he did not comment on any pending or impending case,” the admonishment states. “The commission strongly disagrees. There is an old maxim that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ The saying is designed to convey the concept that a single image often expresses in intricate idea better than any written description. By placing that still photo on his Facebook page, [Hall] expressed to his Facebook friends the woman’s perceived guilt in a louder voice and in a more certain tone than if he had actually written the words himself.”
On April 28, 2016, the complainant was charged in Kanawha County for the misdemeanor offense of telephone harassment and faced a penalty of no more than a $500 fine or imprisonment in the county jail for no more than six months, or both.
On June 8, Halloran held a bench trial for the complainant and found him guilty and sentenced him to a fine of $500 and six months in jail. Later that day, the complainant filed a motion for an appeal.
On Sept. 7, a status conference was held on the appeal and, on Sept. 19., Kanawha Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit remanded the matter back to Halloran to conduct a jury trial.
Meanwhile, on July 5, the complainant filed an ethics complaint against Halloran, and he was asked to reply, which he did not do until Sept. 28.
On Sept. 28, Halloran replied to all of the allegations except why he failed to give the complainant a jury trial despite a request to do so.
The other complaint against Halloran is related to a letter he sent to Kanawha Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey asking her to appoint his assistant, Melanie Rucker, to the vacant position left when Julie Yeager resigned.
In his letter, he stated that Rucker was a candidate in the 2016 election and came in second to Yeager. He also stated “Did Ms. Yeager use stolen money to help her win? Further investigation is needed to answer this question.” The statements were published in the newspaper and Halloran later acknowledged to investigators that he had supplied the letter.
Halloran said he had not initially regarded the contents of the letter as improper and that he did not consider it a matter to be before his court because he would immediately conflict himself off of the case should it be assigned to his docket.
“The tenor of the document and the decision to provide it to the newspaper caused the Commission members to conclude that Respondent took this action in a blatant attempt to strong arm the Chief Judge into appointing Ms. Rucker as Magistrate,” the admonishment said.
The Judicial Investigation Commission determined that formal discipline was not appropriate in Halloran’s case, but it did find that the violations were serious enough to merit a public admonishment.
Judicial Investigation Commission of West Virginia complaint numbers: 68-2017, 84-2017, 114-2017