Judge thrown off bench for witness tampering in wife’s federal corruption trial
By Tom Jackman, Washington Post – 11/30/2017
A juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia was removed from the bench Monday by the Virginia Supreme Court, effective immediately, after he admitted contacting two key witnesses in a pending federal corruption case against his wife.
Kurt J. Pomrenke, 64, was elected to the bench in 2013 to oversee juvenile and domestic court cases in Washington and Smyth counties and Bristol City along the Virginia-Tennessee border. He is only the second Virginia judge in the past 23 years to be removed by the state Supreme Court, court records show, with the other being a juvenile and domestic judge who resolved some visitation issues with a coin flip.
Pomrenke also has been found guilty of contempt of court by a federal judge in Bristol in connection with his wife’s case and is scheduled to be sentenced in that matter Thursday. His wife, Stacey Pomrenke, a former chief financial officer of Bristol Virginia Utilities, is serving a 34-month prison sentence on multiple charges of conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud, as well as contempt of court, in part for her husband’s contact with potential witnesses in the case.
Kurt Pomrenke, in a hearing before the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, which handles complaints against judges, conceded that his actions were wrong and violated the state Canons of Judicial Conduct. The canons require judges to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.” Pomrenke suggested that he only be censured, but the Supreme Court thought his actions were “particularly damaging to the integrity of the judicial process and the confidence of the citizens of the Commonwealth that a sitting judge in the Commonwealth would attempt to improperly influence two potential witnesses in his wife’s federal criminal trial.”
Pomrenke did not respond to a request for comment. His attorney, John E. Lichtenstein, said in a statement that Pomrenke was “disappointed but respects the action of the Supreme Court of Virginia.”
“He will assess his position, but his focus now is on the needs of his family,” Lichtenstein said in the statement. “He is, and will always be, deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in the 28th Judicial District.”
Pomrenke’s downfall began with the 2015 indictment of his wife on 15 corruption-related counts. She had been the chief financial officer of the city’s electric, water and sewer utility since 2003, and prosecutors alleged that she pressured BVU’s vendors for tickets to ballgames and auto races, money to pay for BVU employee parties, awarded bonuses to BVU employees without reporting them for tax purposes, and other executive chicanery. Her husband, a judge and former BVU board member, was granted access to pre-trial discovery in the case over the government’s objection.
Three weeks after his wife’s indictment, Pomrenke sent a handwritten note to her boss, the BVU chief executive Donald L. Bowman, with his business card included in a “thank you” envelope. “I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your kindness and understanding support for Stacey during these horrible times,” Kurt Pomrenke wrote. “It is horrible what our government is doing to her. She will be proven innocent.”
Bowman is a lawyer and had been cooperating with the widely publicized investigation of corruption at BVU, and had made his cooperation known in the news media, the Supreme Court noted. He was shocked to receive the note from Pomrenke, and drove directly to the U.S. attorney’s office in Abingdon, Va., to show it to them. This note, and an email that Stacey Pomrenke sent to five friends asking for their support, caused prosecutors to try to revoke her bond, which the judge denied. Instead, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones charged her with contempt of court for attempted witness tampering. He later found her guilty of this, and added two months to her 32-month corruption sentence in August 2016.
Next, on the eve of his wife’s trial in February 2016, then-Judge Pomrenke left a voicemail for a BVU employee expected to testify during the trial. “Hey, Connie, this is Kurt,” the judge said, according to the Supreme Court. “Um, when you’re testifying in that trial there might be a couple of things that you could do that would really help Stacey. If you could kinda slip in when you have a chance just little remarks like how Stacey did a great job, or Stacey was the one that took care of the employees … just something like that even though it’s not directly in response to the questions.”
That didn’t sit too well with Jones.
Bowman didn’t end up testifying in the trial but the employee, Connie Moffatt, did. The jury convicted Stacey Pomrenke on 14 of 15 charges, and three days later the judge directed the government to prosecute her for contempt of court, based on both email and her husband’s contacts with Bowman and Moffatt.
Meanwhile, a complaint was filed with the judicial review commission against Kurt Pomrenke. The judge responded with a three-page letter to the commission explaining his actions, claiming that he and his wife “had no idea of Bowman’s close continuing relationship with the prosecutors.” He then attached an email written by Bowman that he said was received in his wife’s pretrial discovery, even though he had been ordered not to disclose any of that material to anyone.
This caused federal prosecutors to file a motion in July asking for Pomrenke to be held in contempt of court for disclosing the discovery materials. Jones convicted him in September of willfully violating the order not to disclose. “As a lawyer and judge,” Jones said, according to Virginia Lawyer’s Weekly, “Judge Pomrenke had the maturity, knowledge and legal experience to understand the necessity to obey court orders.” He faces a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 at sentencing Thursday, although jail seems unlikely.
The state Supreme Court then took up a finding from the judicial review commission that Pomrenke had violated the judicial canons, and had admitted it. “We cannot escape the conclusion,” wrote Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, “that having a sitting judge who apparently attempted to manipulate trial testimony would tend to impair public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of not only that judge, but also that of all the other members of the judiciary, and our entire system of justice. … We conclude that Judge Pomrenke’s actions are of sufficient gravity to warrant removal.”
L. Steven Emmert, an appellate lawyer who writes about Virginia’s appeals courts, said, “The word that comes to mind is unthinkable. It’s something that any judge with a good sense of propriety should know is wrong.” Emmert said that “if the only issue had been the note to the boss [Bowman], the Supreme Court might have let him off.” But the voicemail to the woman who actually did testify was too much, he said.
Pomrenke’s removal leaves only two judges to hear all of the juvenile and domestic cases in two counties and Bristol City, and cases he was currently hearing would be distributed to them. Emmert said the circuit court could appoint a temporary successor, who could either be replaced or elected by the General Assembly next year, or it could leave the spot open until the General Assembly elects a successor, who probably wouldn’t take the bench until spring, at the earliest.
Tom Jackman has been covering criminal justice for The Post since 1998, and now anchors the new “True Crime” blog. Follow @TomJackmanWP