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Sedgwick County juvenile court judge denies allegations in complaint

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, April 11, 2014, at 8:32 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 8, 2014, at 6:48 p.m.

The presiding juvenile court judge in Sedgwick County is facing formal complaints that he harassed female prosecutors or staff members, e-mailed biased comments about a lawyer and asked a Wichita school board member to intervene for his wife about a job.

In a statement sent by e-mail Friday, Judge Timothy Henderson said: “I am deeply saddened and hurt by these politically motivated charges. … I have worked with these attorneys many years. Only now after I became presiding judge in 2013 and began making changes to juvenile court bringing greater accountability and transparency have these allegations, some as old as 8 years ago, been made. I deny these allegations and look forward to the time that I will be able to respond fully to these claims.”

Henderson could face a public hearing on the complaints as soon as next month.

Henderson, elected in 2000, heads the part of the court system that handles child-in-need-of-care cases and juvenile offenders.

On March 21 the Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed a “Notice of Formal Proceedings” concerning Henderson.

The judge faces three areas of complaint, based on Kansas Supreme Court rules for conduct, according to the notice.

Count 1 alleges that Henderson “engaged in harassment by making repeated inappropriate and offensive comments” in the presence of women who work for the District Attorney’s Office, “resulting in a hostile working environment as well as gender bias.”

Count 1 says the harassment “was directed toward multiple female staff members,” including a woman who worked at one point for the Department for Children and Families and at one point for the District Attorney’s Office.

Henderson also “regularly made sporadic comments of a sexual or suggestive nature,” Count 1 says.

In September 2013, after a difficult trial, the judge allegedly asked the woman “if she felt the tension between herself and the father in the case.” Based on previous experiences with Henderson, she “interpreted the comment to mean sexual tension.” It alleges that the judge repeated the question several times, embarrassing the woman, and she asked him to stop, the complaint says.

Count 1 describes another complaint involving another female assistant district attorney in which Henderson allegedly “made inappropriate comments insinuating that (the woman) liked to have a lot of sex.”

Henderson allegedly joked about whether the woman was pregnant after vacations, it said. “This subject continued for a few years.” Once, the judge “inquired across the courthouse parking lot whether (the woman) was pregnant.”

Count 1 also includes an incident involving the same prosecutor and a child-in-need-of-care case in September 2013 with “a young girl from China forced to work long hours with her wages being sent to her family.” Henderson allegedly asked the prosecutor “if she needed someone to help her with house work because he knew a young Asian girl who was available.”

Another female assistant district attorney heard Henderson “make numerous comments regarding women getting pregnant on their honeymoons,” the document says.

Henderson allegedly asked another female assistant district attorney about what she was wearing, “referencing a school-girl fantasy,” Count 1 says.

Count 2 alleges that on May 11, 2013, the judge sent an e-mail from his personal account to Diane Bidwell, then director of the DCF regional office in Wichita. The e-mail also was sent to the personal address of Jeff Kahrs, the DCF chief of staff, DCF spokeswoman Theresa Freed confirmed Friday.

The e-mail dealt with representation in guardianship cases by a Wichita attorney, the complaint says. Henderson’s e-mail commented on the attorney’s presumed hourly rate and also included this: “For many years he … handled the life [sic] birth adoptions from Dr. Tiller.” The judge’s e-mail went on to say that another person could attest that the lawyer had “very liberal positions” and was involved in “gay adoptions,” the complaint said. “Your call of course, but I wanted to make you aware of the situation.”

Count 2 says the judge’s e-mail shows “a negative stereotype and/or hostility or aversion toward (the lawyer) and his beliefs which conveys the appearance of bias and prejudice.”

Count 2 says that the lawyer and his law firm “were removed from the DCF appointment list.”

In response to questions from The Eagle, Freed said in an e-mail: “The Judge made DCF aware of concerns related to the attorney’s excessive hourly rates and a potential conflict of interest. The Wichita Region made the decision to remove the attorney from the appointment list. DCF takes seriously its responsibility to make cost-efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

Count 3, which involves a judge being prohibited from using his position for personal advantage, accuses Henderson of approaching Wichita school board member Lanora Nolan, referred to in the complaint as Lanora Franck, and asking that she intervene for his wife.

Henderson’s inquiry “concerned a teaching position or … another position within the school district,” Count 3 says. The judge asked the school board member “to investigate the reason his wife was not offered a contract, if appropriate records had been kept, and if there was any foul play involved.”

Nolan felt Henderson was “using his position to request her to compromise her position” on the school board for his wife, Count 3 says.

Nolan said she couldn’t comment.

The complaints are being handled by the Commission on Judicial Qualifications, which helps the Kansas Supreme Court in judicial disciplinary matters. The 14-member commission, appointed by the Supreme Court, consists of six active or retired judges, four lawyers and four non-lawyers.

A judge who faces formal proceedings, as Henderson does, gets a public hearing before a panel. If a violation is found, the commission can take a range of actions from admonishing a judge to recommending that the Supreme Court retire, censure, suspend or remove the judge.

Before being elected to the judgeship, Henderson was chief counsel for the Wichita office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, now known as DCF. Earlier in his career, he was an assistant district attorney in Shawnee County. According to information on the court’s website, when he was a prosecutor he founded Project Safe Talk, “where children who have been abused can be interviewed in a safe child friendly environment.” It said he also drafted legislation to provide more protection to children.

Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or tpotter@wichitaeagle.com.

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