Investigative reports paint picture of judicial dysfunction

By: - November 14, 2019 6:08 am

Las Vegas Justice Court photo

The Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission is targeting two Las Vegas Justices of the Peace for suspension, but court employee statements made to the commission’s investigator detail widespread dissatisfaction on the bench and among staff.

The JDC says its investigation reveals Justices Melanie Tobiasson and Amy Chelini pose “a substantial threat of serious harm to the public or to the administration of justice.”

“If they think this is a threat to the public’s safety, come on down to the courthouse and I’ll give them a tour,” attorney Robert Langford said.

Langford is married to Justice Ann Zimmerman, who serves in Las Vegas Justice Court. He also represented Chief Judge Suzan Baucum during her interview with the JDC’s investigator in the cases pending against Tobiasson and Chelini.

Tobiasson challenged the Judicial Discipline Commission’s process last year when it alleged she used her position as a judge to notify police of potential criminal activity.  She prevailed before the Nevada Supreme Court.  Now, Tobiasson and her friend and colleague on the bench, Chelini, face suspension for allegedly running roughshod over Justice Court personnel, creating a hostile work environment and more.

Langford says he’s “shocked and outraged” by the JDC’s attempt to suspend the judges.

“Judge Steven Jones was proven to have committed crimes while he was wearing a black robe,” Langford said, noting the severity of judicial infractions warranting suspension.  Jones was sentenced to prison for his role in a $2.9 million investment scheme.

A two-day hearing is scheduled in December to determine if Tobiasson and Chelini violated judicial canons by allegedly using foul language in the presence of staff, going to bat for their clerks facing discipline, banning other clerks from their courtrooms, and protesting attempts by court administration to shuffle staff.  

The JDC’s investigator, Adam Wygnanski, also queried court employees about Tobiasson providing financial assistance to a court employee to purchase a car, and the judge’s penchant for donning allegedly inappropriate clothing beneath her judicial robes.     

One employee questioned by Wyganski “stated that Judge Tobiasson wears inappropriate attire every day. (The witness) stated that it is improper and it’s also inappropriate for Judge Tobiasson to wear ‘low-cut clothing and hooker type heels.’”

A recently terminated court administrator “stated that to this day she is scared and in fear because of being told by Judge Tobiasson multiple times about all the people she knows in town and how they take care of things. Judge Tobiasson would also say, ‘My husband’s ex-metro. He knows a lot of people. I know a lot of detectives. I’m friends with the FBI.’ Basically, veiled threats of what she could do if (the witness) didn’t follow what she asked her to do,” the JDC’s investigator surmised.

“It never happened,” Tobiasson told the Current. “I never had a cross word with her.”

“(The witness) stated that she was still going to file complaints against Judge Tobiasson, Judge Chelini, Judge (Joseph) Sciscento, Judge (Karen) Bennett and Judge Baucum,” investigator Wyganski wrote.

“It’s one of the most outrageous things I’ve seen in 30 years of practicing law,” Langford said of the efforts to suspend the judges. “Talk about a misguided endeavor.”

“This is courthouse rumor, gossip and innuendo,” Langford added. “The fact that taxpayers are spending money for this commission to ferret out bad judges and this is what they come up with?  They should absolutely disband the commission.”

‘Hostile work environment’

The Determination for Interim Suspension, prompted by an initially anonymous letter to the Judicial Discipline Commission, alleges Tobiasson and Chelini “engaged in a pattern of abusive, intimidating, harassing, threatening, demeaning, condescending, offensive and unprofessional behavior towards court administrators and employees, and created a hostile work environment.”

It goes on to say Tobiasson and Chelini “engaged in a pattern of abusing the prestige of judicial office and interfering in Human Resource matters, including with respect to the assignment of court clerks and disciplinary investigations and actions.”

“Respondent engaged in a pattern of not cooperating with court officials in the administration of court business and not performing administrative duties competently,” the JDC’s determination says.

The author of the letter, later revealed to be court employee Maggie Tucker, has supervised court clerks at Las Vegas Justice Court for three years, according to the state’s investigative report. Tucker previously worked at the Clark County District Attorney’s Office for ten years.

Tucker revealed the letter to courthouse colleagues and admitted sending it to the JDC, according to her statement to the JDC’s investigator.

“Respondent (Tobiasson) added that Maggie Tucker is apparently now showing everyone her complaint and bragging on how she is going to take the judges down,” the JDC’s investigator wrote.  “Respondent stated that it is unfortunate to not be able to see the complaint against you and that others have already seen it.”

Tobiasson said she has had very little contact with Tucker.

“She covered my courtroom one time about four or five years ago and that is the only time I ever communicated with her,” Tobiasson said.

Chelini told the JDC’s investigator that “she has only talked with Maggie Tucker on two separate occasions.”

Tobiasson has been at odds with District Attorney Steve Wolfson and Metro Sheriff Joe Lombardo since making public allegations of police and prosecutor wrongdoing.

Days after Tobiasson alleged on KLAS-TV that some officers were protecting pimps and targeting their competition, Lombardo and Wolfson met secretly with then-chief judge Joe Bonaventure and asked him to remove Tobiasson from presiding over criminal cases.  Bonaventure declined.

A month later, the JDC initiated disciplinary proceedings against Tobiasson for allegedly using her position as a judge to communicate with police about possible criminal activity.

“At the end of our interview, Respondent (Tobiiasson) mentioned that District Attorney Steve Wolfson was telling people about this investigation six weeks before any interview was conducted,” the JDC investigator wrote.

Wolfson did not respond to inquiries about Tobiasson’s allegation of his knowledge of the confidential investigation.

‘Never bullied, harassed or intimidated’

A member of court administration interviewed by Wygnanski described Justice Court as a “shit show.”

“She stated that there’s a lot of issues on the administration side and she described it as a ‘shit show’ right now because there’s no accountability with the staff and there was no leadership with prior court administrator and chief judge,” the JDC’s investigative report reads.

The official “agreed that Judge Tobiasson and Judge Chelini demanded that certain backup clerks not be assigned in their court. She stated that this practice is ‘all across the bench.’”

The court official “stated that all 15 judges treat her the same way. She has never been bullied, harassed or intimidated by Judge Tobiasson or Judge Chelini.”

Tobiasson was questioned about a $5,000 gift to a court clerk who is a personal friend.  The clerk, who was removed from Tobiasson’s court years ago after allegedly borrowing money from an attorney, does not work in Tobiasson’s court.

“Respondent (Tobiasson) admitted that in May of 2018, she gave (the court clerk) $5,000 towards the purchase of a vehicle,” the JDC’s investigator Wygnanski wrote. “Respondent stated that this was not improper. (The clerk) did not solicit the money from her. Respondent was aware that (the clerk) was having issues with her vehicle and that she was having difficulty getting to work. … Respondent stated that the money given to (the clerk) was a gift.”

Tobiasson told Wygnanski she did not believe the gift constituted an ethical violation.

“It had nothing to do with work. She and I are friends. She does — I do not have any authority over her whatsoever. She certainly — it wasn’t something that would put her in a position where she would feel obligated to do something for me. I would never ask her to do something for me. It wasn’t like that. I mean, I understand how it’s being made to look, but this was nothing more than me trying to help somebody out who really needed some help.”

The JDC alleges Tobiasson and Chelini “engaged in a pattern of abusing the prestige of judicial office and interfering in Human Resource matters, including with respect to the assignment of court clerks and disciplinary investigations and actions.” 

But JDC investigative reports reveal the majority of employees interviewed by the Commission’s investigator indicate judges routinely voice preferences for certain clerks and fight attempts to have them transferred.

“I think that judges should have input into who the clerks are that they work with on a daily basis because it’s a very important relationship for the flow of the courtroom, for providing a service to the community,” Justice Suzan Baucum, Chief Judge of Justice Court, told the commission’s investigator.

The investigator wrote that one employee said “that the judges think the employees belong to them. The judges constantly stake claim to the court clerks for example; you can’t have mine; I don’t want yours, don’t discipline mine, don’t talk to mine, leave mine alone. This is constant behavior amongst the judges.”  

The JDC alleges Tobiasson and Chelini violated the Revised Nevada Code of Judicial Conduct.  

Attorney William Terry, who represents Tobiasson, and Chelini’s attorney, Tom Pitaro, did not respond to requests for comment.  The JDC is also declining to discuss the case pending the December 16 hearing.

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.