(UPDATED at 1:30 p.m. with rest of the story.) A lot of mud has been slung at Brenda Williams. She's a liar. She's crazy. She's looking for a payday.
Say what you like, Williams said, but she contends that a municipal court judge sexually harassed her, and that no one took action when she complained.
"I want people to know the truth," Williams said. "That's it. It's not about the money."
Williams dropped out of high school and later earned a high-school equivalency certificate. She is of Mexican and Irish descent and learned Spanish from her mother as a child.
She became familiar with legal terminology while taking classes at a community college to become a court reporter. Instead, Williams started working as a court interpreter in 2001.
She said she doesn't think of herself as someone who makes waves, but she isn't afraid to stand up for what she thinks is right.
She sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2004 after she slipped on broken eggs in the store on Taylor Road in Reynoldsburg, according to court documents. She said she settled for $10,000. An attorney for WalMart said he could not comment on the resolution of the case.
Williams and another court interpreter filed an internal-affairs complaint with the Police Division in 2007 alleging that a Columbus officer was taking money from Latino defendants during traffic stops. Investigators didn't find evidence to substantiate or disprove the allegations, according to police records.
Williams is unemployed but said she plans to become a bail bondsman. The 45-year-old mother of four lives in the Hilltop with her husband. She was on unpaid leave for more than a month in 2007 because of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder and was facing foreclosure on her house until she filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection.
By the time her oldest son, Dennis Kelty, 27, returned from his first tour with the Army Reserves in Iraq in 2008, his gregarious, social mother was no longer going out, he said. "She felt like everyone was against her.
"It's hard to take on a judge and a city."
Her attorney, Michael G. Moore, agreed. "I'm sure people are going to say, 'What does that high-school dropout know?'" he said.
But "it doesn't matter what kind of education you have -- if you're upper-crust or a gravedigger -- everyone is accountable."
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Settlement payments in judicial complaints a rarity
Complaints against judges are common, Ohio Supreme Court officials say, because many are filed by people upset by a ruling.
However, many later are determined to be unfounded, and settlements from a taxpayer-funded insurance policy related to such complaints are rare.
More than half of the money paid in Ohio since 2006 went to a Hilltop woman who says a Franklin County Municipal Court judge sexually harassed her and that other court officials covered up for him.
The insurance policy administered by the Supreme Court paid Brenda Williams, a former court interpreter, more than $120,000 to settle her complaints against the Municipal Court judges.
From 2006 through March, only 12 checks totaling a little more than $238,000 have been cut to settle complaints against judges. Two went to Williams and her attorney last year: one for $57,349 for the complaint involving Environmental Judge Harland H. Hale and another for $63,112 involving a group of unnamed judges who, Williams said, did not follow up on her complaints and retaliated against her.
More than 700 judges work in 383 courts in Ohio, according to Supreme Court officials. Ohio judges hear almost 3million cases every year.
Shortly after settling with the judges’ insurance company, Williams filed a lawsuit against the Municipal Court and the city of Columbus in U.S. District Court.
In the federal lawsuit, Williams says that Hale grabbed her breasts and called her a “wetback” and that city and court officials covered up or failed to act on her complaints.
She is seeking more than $5 million in damages and an order ending harassment in the courts. Williams’ attorney said she’d settle the case if Hale stepped down and the city agreed to pay her salary — about $44,000 a year, according to court records — for the next 10 years.
Hale and other Municipal Court judges said they could not comment on the allegations while the federal lawsuit is pending. But the judges and the court administrator denied Williams’ claims in the insurance-settlement documents.
Williams said she decided to sue the city and the court because she didn’t feel the judges had been held accountable. Hale is still on the bench, and the public didn’t know about her complaints, she said.
Judges are accountable to two bodies: the public, who elects them, and the Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, said Teresa L. Liston, who retired from Franklin County Municipal Court but still serves as a visiting judge and a faculty member of the National Judicial College.
The Supreme Court office investigates allegations of ethics violations by judges and lawyers, said Jonathan E. Coughlan, the disciplinary counsel.
If evidence of a violation is found, a complaint is filed with the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline, which is made up of lawyers, judges and laypeople, Coughlan said.
The board then makes a recommendation for discipline to the Supreme Court. However, information related to grievances or investigations is not made public unless the board finds that a violation probably occurred. That’s to protect judges from scurrilous attacks, Supreme Court officials said.
Similarly, details of complaints and the names of people who get settlements from the Liability Insurance Program also are kept secret unless the Board of Commissioners on Grievances and Discipline finds probable cause that the complaint is credible.
Not known is whether information about the September 2010 settlement with Williams in her complaint against Hale and the December 2010 settlement with the other Municipal Court judges was forwarded to the disciplinary counsel.
By Stephanie Czekalinski - The Columbus Dispatch (MCT)
Copyright (c) 2011, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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