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Jefferson County attorney denies stacking district judge races


He says it's a coincidence; some judges say it's a conspiracy.

Seven of Jefferson County Attorney Mike O'Connell's assistant prosecutors have filed to run for District Court - and their opponents include all of the judges with whom O'Connell has recently sparred over drunk-driving prosecutions and other issues.

The challenges come after O'Connell reversed his policy in November to allow his assistants to run without having to leave office. O'Connell said he wanted to create a "more level playing field" in District Court.

But some incumbent judges, particularly Judge Stephanie Pearce Burke, say they believe that O'Connell has recruited assistants to run against judges who have crossed him.

O'Connell insists he played no such role. And in interviews, the candidates from his office deny any suggestion that O'Connell told them whom to run against.

"I told Mike who I was running against - not the other way around," said Jennifer Leibson, an assistant for 12 years who has filed to run against Judge Donald Armstrong Jr.

Prosecutor Andre Bergeron, who is running against Burke, said O'Connell didn't even suggest whom he should challenge.

In addition to Bergeron and Leibson, Assistant County Attorneys Josephine Buckner, Susan Jones, Josh Schneider, Claudia Smith and Amber Wolf have filed - the latter two in an open division.

Burke, who has publicly criticized O'Connell and recently found him "out of order" during a contentious hearing in August, said assistant county attorneys have told her that O'Connell promised them raises for filing to run against her and other judges.

She also claimed O'Connell has targeted her and three other judges who referred to the Kentucky Bar Association a letter he wrote to the bench in December 2012, saying it may have been an improper ex parte - or "one-sided" contact. O'Connell's letter urged the judges to stop defense lawyers from "disingenuous maneuvering" in DUI cases, which he said contributed to high acquittal rates.

Judges Armstrong and Erica Lee Williams said in interviews that they had heard O'Connell was targeting them but had no direct knowledge of it. And both judges, along with Judge David Bowles and Burke are all being challenged by prosecutors after saying they referred the O'Connell letter to the bar association.

But O'Connell said he didn't know that judges referred the letter until the matter surfaced at a bar hearing last week at which O'Connell contested a private admonition he received for sending the letter. No decision is expected for several months.

And payroll records show that only two of the six assistants who have filed to run for judge have received a raise since last November, and Bergeron wasn't one of them. Both received 2 percent raises that were given to all employees in the child-support division, spokeswoman Jessie Halladay said.

District judges are paid $112,668 a year. The salaries of the prosecutors seeking judgeships range from $46,000 to $75,940 a year.

The assistants who are running for judge said in interviews that they had considered seeking election previously but couldn't afford to resign to do it, as required by office policy until O'Connell changed it in November.

"You are seeing a pent-up desire of assistants who finally have a chance to run," said Bergeron, who has two small children and said he couldn't have afforded to be off work during a campaign. "If you are paranoid, it might look like a conspiracy."

Leibson said she has wanted to be judge since she was 14 years old and spent a day in court with her father's first cousin, the late Jefferson Circuit Judge Joseph Leibson.

She said she filed against Armstrong in part because of his record in acquitting accused drunk drivers in cases tried without juries. The Courier-Journal reported in December 2012 that 83 percent of such defendants tried before Armstrong, King and Williams were acquitted.

The newspaper also said in a story last August that Armstrong had released two accused drug traffickers a few hours after another judge had set cash bonds for them.

"I saw an injustice going on that I didn't think was fair to citizens," Leibson said.

Cohen said she filed against Williams because she had prosecuted cases in Williams' court and thought "I could do a better job." She said it is insulting to think she'd be so "gullible" that she would run just to seek vengeance for her boss.

Bergerson said he decided to challenge Burke because she's been a judge for one term and would be vulnerable.

Buckner said she decided to challenge Bowles after researching his campaign spending and winning margin in his first race, and after "thinking and praying" about it.

"This is my race and my time," she said.

Smith said O'Connell has neither encouraged nor discouraged her from challenging Judge KatieKing, whose father, Jim King, is president of the Louisville Metro Council. O'Connell said he called Jim King to tell him Smith was running "as a courtesy" because the county attorney's office represents the Metro Council.

Just because assistants are running doesn't mean they will win.

But O'Bryan, founder of Pro-Active Media, said that if a prosecutor has "personal money' and the ability to raise more - and they are running against an incumbent who hasn't been on the bench long or shown a willingness to spend in past races, then the prosecutor "has a legitimate shot to win."

In an interview in his office, O'Connell said it was "disturbing" that a sitting judge had accused him of using tax money to entice assistants to run, which he said is untrue. He said he is pleased that so many of his assistants are running.

He said he has required them to give him notice before filling, but he said they'd all decided to run before he talked to them.

O'Connell said he shared with them his experiences running campaigns and suggested that they talk to Larry O'Bryan, a consultant who is working on O'Connell's re-election campaign, in which he so far has no challenger.

O'Connell banned assistants from running without resigning after elections in 2008 in which assistants ran against each other and against sitting judges, which he said created "a pretty difficult and somewhat contentious time."

But O'Connell said in changing that policy in November that he "realized there were some qualified individuals on my staff who would make excellent judges," and "thought it would be good to give the voter's more choices."

Immediate past Chief Judge Sean Delahanty said after O'Connell announced the policy change that he thought O'Connell was trying to "intimidate" judges into ruling in the prosecution's favor by suggesting they might face opposition from a prosecutor if they did not.

Two of O'Connell's assistants - Schneider and Wolf - are running against each other and two other candidates for the seat vacated by Judge Ann Bailey Smith, who is running for circuit court.

Schneider worked until December in the Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney's office, which requires prosecutors to resign or take a leave of absence to run for the bench. O'Connell said he gave Schneider a $46,000-a-year job prosecuting misdemeanor and traffic cases because of his prior experience and because "he asked."

O'Connell said he pointed out to Wolf that Schneider already had filed in the same division, "but she said that was what she wanted to do."

Said Wolf: "He gave me his blessing. He made it very clear he wasn't going to be involved in any way."

Judge Gina Kay Calvert, who faces a challenge from prosecutor Susan Jones, said she was surprised that someone filed against her because, "I think I've done a good job." But she acknowledged that "you don't own a judicial position" and that "being challenged goes with the territory."

Still, she said, "I plan to be a judge for many years to come."