Judge alleges public shaming at heart of Judicial Discipline Complaint

By: - September 22, 2020 10:39 am

Melanie Tobiasson testifying in a Judicial Disciplinary Commission hearing in December 2019. (Nevada Current file photo)

The Nevada Judicial Discipline Commission’s latest complaint against Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Melanie Tobiasson levels a barrage of allegations that are factually incorrect and amount to a bad faith effort designed to embarrass the judge and her family, according to a Response and Motion to Dismiss filed by the judge Monday, which the JDC confirms it’s received but has not posted to its website. The staff is working split shifts because of COVID, the employee said. 

The JDC’s scathing complaint, filed last month, alleges that Tobiasson used her position as a judge to influence police, interfered in the investigation of a double murder, dismissed domestic violence charges against an “organized crime” figure, and failed to recuse herself from a case involving Shane Valentine, a defendant she believed was attempting to lure her daughter into prostitution.  

The motion from Tobiasson, obtained by the Current from her attorneys, reveals Sheriff Joe Lombardo was “livid” in 2016 when vice detectives failed to follow up on tips from the judge about an alleged underage nightclub at Top Knotch, a clothing store that was later the scene of a murder in the parking lot.  The motion quotes witness testimony that Lombardo transferred a team of detectives out of the vice unit over the botched investigation into Tobiasson’s tips. 

In an interview with the JDC’s investigator that is cited in Tobiasson’s motion, Metro Homicide Det. Jarrod Grimmett described a meeting with Lombardo and detectives about the murder.

“‘You get information and you did nothing with it, and now we got a murder? You know, I mean, what the hell?’” Grimmett said, paraphrasing Lombardo.  “Pretty much how the meeting went. A lot of yelling and screaming and a lot of spit flying by the Sheriff. Because he was upset. ‘A judge gave you some valid information and you did nothing with it.’ And the vice detective (Kelly Bluth) says, ‘yeah, I walked in there and something wasn’t right,’ is what he said. Something wasn’t right. And he (Lombardo) says: ‘And then what the hell did you do about it? Nothing. And now we have a murder.’” 

A month after the murder, on October 25, 2016, according to Tobiasson and witness testimony, Vice Detective Justine Gatus revealed to a Metro officer and his teen daughter that Tobiasson suspected the girl, a friend of Tobiasson’s daughter, was being trafficked by Valentine.

Shortly after midnight on the 26th, associates of the girl — 20-year-old Nehemiah Kauffman, a suspected pimp, and his 21-year-old girlfriend Sydney Land, were executed in their apartment.  

The initial suspect, according to police, was Valentine, the man Tobiasson feared was attempting to groom her daughter.  Valentine has been identified by police as a person of interest on and off during the almost four-year investigation into the murders.  

‘Master of Puppets’ 

Tobiasson reached out to Connie Land, the mother of the murder victim, via social media — not as a judge, she said in interviews with investigators and media, but as a concerned mother.

The two shared information, according to the Current’s interviews with both women. Land provided Tobiasson with text messages from Metro Police. 

Land told the Current she became disillusioned with Tobiasson, as well as with Metro’s failure to find her daughter’s murderer, and no longer trusted police. She eventually turned to the FBI with her concerns about Metro and Tobiasson. 

Tobiasson’s motion to dismiss says Special Agent Richard Smith, who was assigned to reach out to Land, described the grieving mother to the JDC’s investigator as “a good-intentioned, good person with a big heart, but who has not, didn’t interpret information accurately at times” and “who jumps to conspiracy conclusions with pretty much any bit of information”.  

Smith told the investigator a post about the murders, written by blogger Doug Poppa and quoting Land, solidified his opinion.    

“And it was such a misconstruing and fabrication of facts and circumstances that I discontinued any and all contact with [Land],” Smith said.   

Land turned to the JDC, alleging in a complaint that Tobiasson used her position as a judge to interfere in the murder investigation. She also said Tobiasson stated the FBI was investigating the murders, revealed confidential information provided by police, and demanded the two communicate via “burner phones,” according to the JDC”s Formal Statement of Charges against Tobiasson. 

Tobiasson’s motion says that Grimment, when asked whether Tobiasson inserted herself into the investigation, responded “No, not by any means.”

“Prior to the double murder happening, it’s my understanding she had provided information to our vice unit about the activities she suspected going on at Top Knotch, and nothing was done about it,” Grimmett said, according to the motion.  “They basically ignored her.”

Grimmett’s testimony, repeated in Tobiasson’s motion, said Tobiasson neither asked for nor received confidential information regarding the murders.  

The motion to dismiss says the JDC’s initial investigator, Bob Schmidt, wrote “Judge Tobiasson did nothing more than inform the police of the information she had learned about the suspected prostitution ring and did not use her position on the bench to influence LVMPD detectives.”

The JDC hired another investigator, Adam Wygnanski, to pore over the same allegations, the motion says.  

“Moreover, it appears that Mr. Schmidt’s report was totally disregarded… without mention to the Schmidt report’s exonerative findings,” Tobiasson’s motion says.

“There is nothing illegal or otherwise improper in having a second phone.’” the motion says about the allegation that she communicated with Land via “burner phones.” 

According to the JDC’s investigator, Tobiasson made at least 48 calls to FBI agent Kevin White via the so-called “burner phone” and 130 calls to White from her personal phone. 

“If the use of a ‘burner phone’ was improper, it seems unlikely she would use it to communicate with the FBI,” Tobiasson’s motion says.

The JDC complaint alleges that according to Land, Tobiasson dubbed herself in text messages as “Master of Puppets.”

But according to Tobiasson’s motion, an exhibit in the JDC’s investigator’s report “shows a screen shot of a text message that clearly shows that Land — not Respondent — created and used that moniker and sent it to Respondent who thought it was a joke.” 

“…it is laughably ridiculous to suggest judges should be subject to discipline because of what someone else calls them,” Tobiasson’s motion says.

Going public 

In 2018, Tobiasson told KLAS Channel 8 News and the Current that Las Vegas Metro Police were selectively protecting pimps, some of whom were recruiting the daughters of police and judges for sex trafficking.  The move prompted Lombardo and District Attorney Steve Wolfson to secretly attempt to have Tobiasson removed from the criminal docket, the Current reported.  

Weeks later, in June 2018, JDC Executive Director Paul Deyhle filed a complaint against Tobiasson regarding her public allegations about police.  The investigator, Bob Schmidt, concluded there were no grounds to pursue formal charges against Tobiasson.  

Tobiasson alleges the JDC is essentially forum-shopping, by selecting another investigator to probe the same issues.

Last year, Tobiasson was hauled before the JDC which sought to suspend her for a spate of allegations including having two employees fired, using profane language in the presence of employees, asking to have a say in the clerks who assist in her court, and for her fashion choices off the bench.  

After a two-day hearing the JDC continued the investigation.  That complaint remains pending. 

Last month, Tobiasson filed two motions with the JDC to dismiss the June 2018 complaint initiated by the commission and Land’s complaint, both of which were filed more than 18 months ago, the period of time the JDC has to file formal charges.  Instead of responding to the motions, the commission filed formal charges regarding both complaints.  

Failure to recuse? 

The JDC also alleges Tobiasson failed to recuse when Valentine appeared in her court on a domestic violence charge.  The JDC’s initial investigation concluded Tobiasson had done nothing inappropriate. 

“[w]hen Judge Tobiasson realized that Shane Valentine was in her court, she called the prosecutor and the public defender into chambers and informed them of the possible conflict with Mr. Valentine,” Schmidt, the original investigator wrote in 2018. “Both the prosecutor, Hagar Trippiedi and public defender, Marla Renteria, did not feel there would be a conflict for Judge Tobiasson to preside in Valentine’s entering his plea and imposing the negotiated sentence.” 

According to her motion, Tobiasson told investigators she did not initially recuse in the hope that Valentine had not made a connection between the judge and her daughter.  

Tobiasson’s motion contends the JDC’s allegations once again contradict the results of their own investigation.  

The JDC’s complaint also alleges that Tobiasson “kicked in the door” of Valentine’s house. 

“This allegation relies on a transcript by a blogger (Poppa) who refused to provide the full accompanying recording,” Tobiasson’s response says.

Tobiasson’s response maintains “in reality, the audio says ‘kicked the door.’”

“There was certainly no break-in reported at the Valentine house relative to (Tobiasson),” the motion says. “Further, there is no complaint by Valentine related to this allegation.”

The motion says a mother in Tobiasson’s alleged situation would be showing restraint by kicking, rather than striking the door with her fist.

“Similarly, there is no allegation that she drove a county vehicle to the house, wore her judicial robes or acted in any capacity other than as a mother,” the motion reads.  

Tobiasson’s motion says the commission’s position appears to be that “if a judge’s family member is a victim of a crime, they cannot go to the police, go to the criminal’s attorney, or even approach the criminal themselves — they’re subject to some victim’s standard that no one else in in society is subjected.”

Poppa, a former law enforcement agent who is referred to by the JDC as a news reporter, told the Current he has “no formal training” in journalism.  He also admits he reneged on his assurance to Tobiasson that he would not publish recorded audio of the interview, which included the names of juveniles and others. 

“My editor made me post it,” Poppa said in 2019, when asked by the Current about the recording.  The Baltimore Post Examiner did not respond to the Current’s request for comment on Poppa’s assertion.

Much of Land’s complaint against Tobiasson relies on blogs written by Poppa, who is acting as both reporter and witness in the case.  He’s even posted a recording of the confidential testimony he gave the JDC’s investigator.  

JDC Executive Director Deyhle declined to say how Poppa obtained a recording of the interview. 

It is unusual for a reporter to agree to be interviewed by authorities. 

‘Known and documented organized crime figure’

The JDC’s complaint on behalf of Land says Metro surveillance of Tobiasson’s phone, which was obtained with a warrant allegedly because of the judge’s interest in the double murder case, revealed she exchanged more than 1,000 texts between July and December 2017 with Anthony Danna, described as “a known and documented organized crime figure who had been charged with felony domestic violence.”

Federal court records reveal Danna was convicted of conspiring to traffic cocaine in 2006 and sentenced to 33 months in prison.

According to the JDC’s formal charges against Tobiasson, in July 2017 she “presided over a hearing involving Danna where she dismissed the pending charges against him.” 

But a transcript of the hearing reveals the District Attorney, not Tobiasson, dismissed the charges.  

“So, Mr. Danna, the DA’s office is dismissing these two charges against you,” Tobiasson said at the hearing, according to a transcript obtained, but apparently disregarded, by the JDC. 

Tobiasson’s motion notes the known “organized crime figure” Anthony Danna died in 1984. 

“Respondent had no information when she met Danna at a social function after the district attorney’s dismissal of charges to suggest this Anthony Danna was an organized crime figure,” the motion says. “Presumably, the prosecutor also has no evidence to support that Danna was a known organized crime figure, particularly as the District Attorney’s office voluntarily dismissed the charge.”

Tobiasson’s motion to dismiss the complaint against her alleges the repeated twisting of facts by the commission and its investigator are intentional.  

“To file a Formal Statement of Charges alleging that a judge, who has a legal obligation to report criminal activity, has violated ethics rules for reporting such criminal activity to the police is suspect in and of itself,” Tobiasson’s motion reads. “It also clearly and convincingly calls into question the true motivation behind any such complaint…”

The Judicial Discipline Commission does not comment on pending cases. 

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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.