Pomrenke removed from judgeship by Virginia Supreme Court

By David McGee, Bristol Herald Courier – 11/28/2017

Embattled Judge Kurt Pomrenke was ordered removed from his position on the 28th District juvenile and domestic relations bench Monday by the Supreme Court of Virginia.

The court ruled unanimously that Pomrenke, 63, violated the Virginia Canons of Justice by attempting to influence potential witnesses in his wife’s 2016 federal corruption trial. The court could have either censured Pomrenke or removed him from office but Chief Justice Donald Lemons wrote in the opinion Pomrenke’s actions were of “sufficient gravity to warrant removal.”

“What Judge Pomrenke did strikes at the heart of the judicial system,” Lemons wrote. “It is 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. That his transgressions may not have actually affected the criminal trial of his wife does not mitigate the gravity of his conduct.”

The charges were brought earlier this year by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission of Virginia following a lengthy investigation.

Attorneys for Pomrenke and the commission appeared before the high court Nov. 1. Pomrenke’s attorney John Lichtenstein asked the court to censure his client while commission counsel Katherine Burnett didn’t seek a specific ruling, instead asking the court to take “appropriate” measures.

In a written statement Monday, Lichtenstein said, “Judge Pomrenke is disappointed but respects the action of the Supreme Court of Virginia announced today. He will assess his position but his focus now is on the needs of his family. He is, and always will be, deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in the 28th judicial district.”

Stacey Pomrenke served as chief financial officer and executive vice president of BVU Authority prior to her February 2016 conviction in U.S. District Court on conspiracy, wire fraud and other charges. She was indicted the previous October.

The commission charged that Kurt Pomrenke improperly contacted his wife’s boss, BVU Authority President and CEO Don Bowman, via a Nov. 2015 thank you note that included one of the judge’s business cards. Three days before the trial began, Pomrenke also left a voicemail message on the cell phone of BVU employee Connie Moffatt, urging her to say something to “really help Stacey” during her testimony.

In Pomrenke’s response to the commission, he claimed both contacts were made in his “personal capacity” and not intended to “intimidate or pressure anyone,” the chief justice wrote.

Neither Bowman nor Moffatt testified during Stacey Pomrenke’s two-week trial and Kurt Pomrenke apologized to the commission during a June 2017 hearing and in briefs filed with the Supreme Court.

However the commission charged that he violated Canons 1, 2A and 2B, including provisions that a judge should “participate in establishing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct and shall personally observe those standards.” Canon 2 decrees judges should “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety,” act to “promote public confidence” and “shall not allow family, social, political or other relationships to influence the judge’s judicial conduct or judgment.”

In the court’s opinion, Lemons concluded Pomrenke committed the violations of the Canons as charged and that his actions failed to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary and tended to impair public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

“We conclude that Judge Pomrenke’s violations of the Canons were grave and substantial,” Lemons wrote. “Judge Pomrenke made a deliberate decision to contact two potential witnesses prior to his wife’s trial.”

The court determined the note to Bowman was intended to secure his wife’s continued employment and displayed intent to influence a potential witness. The opinion is even sharper in its criticism of the phone message.

“Judge Pomrenke’s voicemail message for Moffatt was even more overt in its intent to influence a witness,” Lemons wrote.

Writing on his website Virginia Appellate News and Analysis, attorney L. Steven Emmert called Pomrenke’s removal from the bench a “rare” occurrence.

“My sense as I read the factual recitation is that the initial note to the boss may have been a somewhat close call for the court, especially if the judge really didn’t know that the boss would be a potential witness,” Emmert wrote. “That being said, today’s opinion adopts several facts from JIRC’s brief that establish that he should have known. The voice mail is another matter entirely; there is no question that this was an attempt to tamper with a witness. And no judge can do that and expect to keep his robe.”

Kurt Pomrenke, who was convicted in federal court earlier this year on a contempt charge for sending an email from his wife’s trial evidence to the JIRC , is scheduled to be sentenced in that case Thursday at 1:30 p.m.