Bethel judge accused of improper conduct again

ANCHORAGE — A District Court judge in Bethel is again accused of improper conduct, 2 1/2 years after the Alaska Supreme Court suspended him for inappropriate contact with a witness.

The state Commission on Judicial Conduct filed a complaint alleging Judge Dennis Cummings engaged in off-bench communications in two criminal cases in June that could be viewed as aiding the prosecution in criminal matters.

The complaint cites the state Supreme Court’s July 2009 order to suspend Cummings for three months for similar conduct, saying he engaged in a pattern of improper communications.

Cummings’ Anchorage lawyer, Jonathon Katcher, declined to comment Monday.

The complaint involves communications between Cummings and Assistant District Attorney Ben Wohlfeil, who was handling the two unrelated June cases. It alleges that on two separate occasions, the judge suggested after court proceedings that the attorney read appeals court opinions Cummings said were relevant to the cases.

“By suggesting legal authority in a pending matter in two off-record conversations with the prosecutor in those pending matters, Judge Cummings engaged in ex parte conversations that could be viewed as aiding the prosecution,” the complaint issued Friday states.

It is improper for a judge to have contact with only one side in a court case.

Cummings, who has 20 days to file a response, is a sitting judge. He was appointed in 2005 by former Gov. Frank Murkowski.

Commission director Marla Greenstein said the head of the criminal division in the state attorney general’s office filed a complaint with the commission in June, and an investigation was conducted. A hearing also will be held by the nine-member commission — composed of three judges, three members of the public and three attorneys — although one of the attorney seats is currently vacant.

Ultimately, the “commission can recommend that the Supreme Court take disciplinary action,” Greenstein said.

The commission also issued a complaint against Cummings in the earlier case.

That case led to the order by the high court, which said Cummings’ actions constituted an ethical violation. The court ordered him to get additional training at his own expense before returning to the bench.

At issue was an incident that occurred in March 2008 when Cummings was presiding over a criminal jury trial. The defendant was accused of twice violating a protective order obtained by his wife.

At the trial, a state trooper testified he knew of no reason the man couldn’t still have contact with his children. But the underlying protective order, which Cummings approved in June 2007, prohibited the defendant from visiting the children.

Cummings handed another trooper, Joey Beaudoin, a note during a break that urged him to look at that part of the protective order. Before he became a judge, Cummings was part of a regular card-playing group that included Beaudoin, and the two were friends, the trooper has said.

When the judge gave the trooper the note, he made a comment to the effect of “just in case you want to go fishing,” Beaudoin said.

The same year, the Alaska Judicial Council unanimously recommended a “no” vote on Cummings’ retention on the bench, saying it reviewed the commission’s complaint and the judge’s response to the complaint. The council said it found Cummings to be unqualified.

Voters retained him anyway in 2008.


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