Kenton Judge Denies Judicial Commission Charges

The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission issued multiple charges against Kenton County Family Court Judge Dawn Gentry last month. The nine charges were released this week.

Gentry denied all the charges.

Formal proceedings against the judge, appointed to the position by Governor Matt Bevin before being elected in 2018, are initiated which will lead to a hearing at some point in the future.

"While serving as Family Court Judge for Kenton County—in particular, since being elected to that position in November 2018—you have engaged in a pattern of conduct that constitutes misconduct in office and violates the Code of Judicial Conduct," the commission wrote in its findings. "Any of the Counts described below, on their own, constitute sufficient grounds for disciplinary action. But examined as a whole, the allegations in this Notice demonstrate a pattern of misconduct in office. As a result, the Commission has determined formal proceedings and charges are warranted."

The commission wrote that Gentry allegedly engaged in the following acts of conduct related to her 2018 campaign while also sitting on the bench as an appointed judge:

1. You coerced members of your GAL panel to donate the maximum amount to your campaign and to use personal time to engage in campaigning on your behalf.

(Note: The Legal Aid Network of Kentucky defines GAL as "A guardian ad litem (GAL) is an attorney appointed by the courts to represent the best interests of the child and to provide legal representation for the child. The GAL is responsible for helping the court make an informed decision about the welfare of the child. The GAL should interview all parties concerned, study the relevant case files and get to know the child or children involved. Once the necessary inquires are made, the GAL represents the child at hearings, writes reports to the court, and makes advisory recommendations regarding the child's best interests.")

2. You required your GAL panel members to serve on the finance committee for your campaign.

3. While in court, you solicited an attorney to put up a campaign sign. 

4. You utilized court staff to work on your campaign during work hours. This conduct included, but is not necessarily limited to, having your staff attorney place and deliver campaign signs and having your case management specialist/mediator write thank-you notes for the campaign and publicly hold a campaign sign on Election Day. You also took steps to conceal this conduct.

5. You appointed attorney Delana Sanders to your GAL panel in exchange her husband’s agreement to support your campaign. At the time, just months before the election, there was not an opening on your GAL panel. You also had your staff attorney research whether you could add an additional panel member so that you could appoint Ms. Sanders.

(Note: Delana Sanders's husband is Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Rob Sanders.)

Additional charges brought by the commission include:

1. During your campaign, you retaliated against Meredith Smith for not sufficiently supporting your campaign.

2. You retaliated against attorney Mike Hummel for failing to make the maximum monetary donation to your campaign and declining to campaign on your behalf by removing Mr. Hummel from the GAL panel.

3. You retaliated against attorneys who did not support your campaign by delaying hearing dates for their cases.

4. You retaliated against school liaison officer Kelly Blevins for supporting your opponent in the election.

Further charges include:

1. You filled out and approved a false timesheet for Meredith Smith.

2. You have on numerous occasions left the courthouse with Mr. Penrose and Ms. Aubrey during regular court hours, leaving the office without any staff coverage.

3. You knowingly approved inaccurate timesheets for Mr. Penrose and Ms. Aubrey by approving timesheets that you knew did not accurately reflect the hours those employees worked.

4. On one occasion, when you brought your children to work with you, your child witnessed a confidential proceeding and recognized the child involved in the proceeding, violating the confidentiality of proceedings in a family court case.

5. You permitted Mr. Penrose to spend work hours playing his guitar and singing in his office, disrupting other court employees during the workday.

6. You permitted staff to store and consume alcoholic beverages in court offices and at times consumed alcoholic beverages in the courthouse.

Further charges:

1. You directed Kelly Blevins and other school liaison officers to file school dependency, neglect, and abuse cases only once per month and to only file certain petitions as truancy cases rather than dependency, neglect, and abuse cases. When Ms. Blevins followed her employer’s instructions regarding how to file such cases, you retaliated against her.

2. Following these actions, you refused to recuse yourself from Ms. Blevins’ cases, despite having previously expressed personal animosity toward Ms. Blevins.

The commission also wrote, "You have on multiple occasions held pretrial conferences in dependency, neglect, and abuse cases with the members of your GAL panel to which private attorneys representing parties in those cases are not invited. Substantive decisions are made during these conferences, which are not held on the record."

And:

1. You engaged in inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances toward Ms. Schulz.

2. After you made unwelcomed sexual advances toward Ms. Schulz, you sent another attorney on your GAL panel to speak with Ms. Schulz, accusing her of gossiping about you, as well as taking GAL assignments in Boone County. This conduct was reasonably interpreted as warning Ms. Schulz to remain quiet regarding sexual advances.

3. Following these events, you refused to recuse yourself from cases when Ms. Schulz represented one of the parties.

4. You engaged in Snapchat conversations with members of your GAL panel and Mr. Penrose, some of which were sexual in nature.

In count seven, the commission found:

1. You hired Stephen Penrose because you were engaged in a personal sexual relationship with him, not on the basis of merit. You terminated Meredith Smith by forcing her to resign to create a job opening for Mr. Penrose.

2. You engaged in inappropriate workplace behavior with Mr. Penrose. You also engaged in sexual activity with Mr. Penrose and Ms. Aubrey in a courthouse office, during work hours.

3. You improperly delegated judicial functions to Mr. Penrose.

In county eight, the commission wrote:

1. You appointed GAL panel members not based on merit and assigned cases to them before they had any GAL training.

2. You have appointed personal friends who supported you in your campaign to the “Permanent Custody Roster” to represent individuals seeking de facto custodian status without requiring those individuals to come to court to receive appointments. On some occasions, you have passed out these individuals’ business cards.

In count nine, the commission wrote, "You failed to be candid and honest with the Commission in a previous inquiry regarding the appointment of Ms. Sanders and the firing of Ms. Smith and Mr. Hummel, as well as about the quality of Mr. Hummel’s work on the GAL panel."

Attorney Stephen Ryan, representing Judge Gentry, responded to the charges, offering denials to each count.

"She never asked anyone for money for her campaign," Ryan said on Gentry's behalf. "She did ask many people including members of her GAL panel to help with the campaign."

Gentry also denied appointed Delana Sanders to the GAL panel in return for campaign support from Rob Sanders. "There is no set number of people on the panel. Ms. Sanders was well qualified," Ryan wrote. 

Gentry went on to deny allegations that she retaliated against any of the aforementioned individuals listed in the commission's findings. 

Gentry also denies any "inappropriate or unwanted sexual advances" towards Schulz. 

Part of the response on Gentry's behalf is written in all-caps, denying any sexual relationship with Penrose or Aubrey.

The full list of charges and Gentry's denial can be read here.

-Staff report

Photo via Dawn Gentry's campaign website