Fifth Circuit investigates allegation that three bankruptcy judges covered up clerk’s sexual misconduct

It looks like the federal judiciary is having another #MeToo moment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is investigating three San Antonio bankruptcy judges in response to allegations that they covered up sexual misconduct by the former court clerk and permitted retaliation against a whistleblower, according to records provided by a former employee.

In a May 14, 2018 letter to former court employee Alan Vest, a deputy clerk wrote that Chief Judge Carl E. Stewart of the Fifth Circuit appointed himself and two other judges, Fifth Circuit Judge Leslie H. Southwick and Northern District of Texas Judge Jane H. Boyle, to investigate the complaint that Mr. Vest filed against Chief Bankruptcy Judge Ronald B. King and Bankruptcy Judges Craig A. Gargotta and H. Christopher Mott of the Western District of Texas.

The investigation has not been reported publicly, and the three judges declined my requests for comment. The former clerk, George D. Prentice, now serves as the clerk of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Arizona in Phoenix.

According to Mr. Vest, his troubles began almost eight years ago when he questioned the appointment of an inexperienced female candidate as head of his department. The woman originally was hired as a summer intern, then suddenly left her position without giving notice, he said.

Notwithstanding the bizarre circumstances of her departure, she was allowed to return to work a few months later, he said, then she was suddenly promoted to department head over far more experienced candidates. When he shared his concerns with Mr. Prentice that “something unseemly” had happened, Mr. Prentice became irate.

“He almost came over my desk screaming at me,” Mr. Vest said. “That told me right then and there that something happened.”

Mr. Vest said Mr. Prentice had a reputation for office romances, and in 2012 Mr. Vest learned that the husband of Mr. Prentice’s administrative assistant had sued Mr. Prentice for harming their marriage via relentless “romantic overtures” toward her. (If the husband’s complaint is accurate, it certainly sounds like sexual harassment).

Mr. Vest said he decided to file the misconduct complaints after the #MeToo movement crossed paths with the federal judiciary earlier this year. He was fired by the court in 2012, and he said the three judges did nothing to protect him from retaliation, nor did they take disciplinary action against Mr. Prentice. Instead, Mr. Prentice accepted the job in Arizona, and his administrative assistant resigned.

According to a May 22, 2018 email to Mr. Vest from a Fifth Circuit attorney, the panel appointed Paul Coggins, a Dallas-based partner at Locke Lord LLP, to assist the investigation as special counsel. He did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Mr. Vest told me that he was interviewed by Mr. Coggins and an associate, Mario H. Nguyen, on July 17, 2018. “My judicial misconduct complaint was based on the fact that the judges knew that the clerk of court was having in unethical relationships with subordinates and did nothing about it.” Mr. Vest said. “Interestingly enough, pretty much all the investigators wanted to discuss was the former clerk of court and his inappropriate relationships. Very little was discussed regarding the judges.”

An interesting side note: the Fifth Circuit has far more power over bankruptcy judges than district or circuit judges. The latter can only be removed if Congress impeaches and convicts them, but the Fifth Circuit can terminate bankruptcy judges for good cause.

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