Judge pleads innocent to sex crime charges

September 3, 2008 11:03:36 AM PDT
U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent, vowing to bring a "horde of witnesses" in his defense, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he fondled a former case manager and tried to force her into a sexual act, the first time a federal judge has been charged with such crimes. Kent was indicted last week on what he called "flagrant, scurrilous" federal sex crimes following a U.S. Justice Department investigation into complaints by case manager Cathy McBroom.

"I plead absolutely, unequivocally not guilty and look very much forward to a trial on the merits," a feisty Kent told 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edward Prado, brought to Houston to hear Kent's case.

Kent's wife, Sarah, attended the hearing and the couple left the courthouse holding hands, although Kent was scheduled to work in his chambers in the same courthouse on Wednesday.

He was released on his own recognizance and did not speak to reporters.

"The charges are lies. He's now eager for his day in court," Kent's attorney, high-profile criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, said after the hearing.

DeGuerin has defended such famous clients as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and New York real estate heir Robert Durst.

Prosecutors declined to comment after the hearing.

Kent, 59, is facing two counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse.

If convicted of attempted aggravated sexual abuse, Kent could face up to life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Each of the two counts of abusive sexual contact carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

McBroom accused the judge of physical sexual harassment over a four-year period starting in 2003 when he was the only U.S. District Court judge in Galveston, an island beach town 50 miles southeast of Houston.

The final incident was in March 2007, when she said the judge pulled up her blouse and bra and was trying to force her to perform oral sex when they were interrupted.

Her accusations were first investigated by the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That panel suspended Kent in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him.

The Associated Press does not normally name alleged victims of sexual abuse, but McBroom's attorney and her family have used her name in publicly discussing the case. McBroom did not appear in court Wednesday.

As part of its punishment, Kent was transferred to the busy Houston federal courthouse, where McBroom was relocated after reporting her allegations.

Until his indictment, Kent was known not for any high-profile rulings, but for writing humorous opinions peppered with sarcastic scoldings of lawyers. Kent was appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

The hearing was typical of any defendant making his first court appearance, with Prado asking Kent if he understood the charges against him and what his rights were.

"You probably know the routine," Prado told Kent and noted an out of state judge would preside over a trial.

Atypical of an arraignment was Kent's characteristic outspokenness emerging, announcing to Prado that DeGuerin planned to question whether the statute of limitations had expired on one of the two abusive sexual contact charges.

"I absolutely intend to testify and we are going to bring a horde of witnesses," Kent said.

DeGuerin added, "Your honor will see, I have very little client control."

DeGuerin said he also hoped to introduce the results of a lie detector test Kent took and passed after he was indicted.

Kent is the first federal judge to be charged with sex crimes. The last federal judge to be criminally charged was Robert F. Collins, a Louisiana-based judge accused in 1991 of scheming with a New Orleans businessman to split a drug smuggler's $100,000 payoff. Most indictments of federal judges have been for corruption or other financial misdeeds.

Only Congress can remove a federal judge through the impeachment process, which starts with the House voting for impeachment and then the Senate holding a trial.

Since 1803, the House has impeached 13 judges and the Senate has convicted seven of them. Two others resigned after being impeached by the House, according to the Federal Judicial Center's Web site.

Lawmakers usually wait for the criminal process to conclude before proceeding with impeachment.

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