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NC5 Investigates: General Sessions Court

Judges Hire Family in Violation of Ethics Rule

Judge Gloria Dumas, right, with daughter Kim Levitan Judge Gloria Dumas, right, with daughter Kim Levitan
Judge Gale Robinson with son-in-law Lyell Sloan, left Judge Gale Robinson with son-in-law Lyell Sloan, left

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- A lot of people are looking for jobs these days.

But a NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that you never had a shot at some jobs in the Metro courthouse.

That's because some judges hired their relatives -- despite judicial rules that actually prohibit nepotism.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams uncovered the violations that now have the judges reporting themselves to authorities.

For example, when General Sessions Judge Gale Robinson needed a new court officer, he did not take out a "Help Wanted" ad. Instead, he just hired his son-in-law.

"I didn't intentionally do anything to violate my canons of ethics -- I thought I was doing right," Robinson told Williams.

And Judge Gloria Dumas did not post the opening in her courtroom either. She hired her own daughter.

"At the time, I did not believe that I was doing anything incorrect," Dumas insisted.

Ethics watchdog Ben Cunningham says he can't understand what part of "no" that Davidson County's judges can't understand.

Tennessee's judicial canons read: "A judge shall avoid nepotism."

"Nepotism is not acceptable," Cunningham said. "Clearly, if you are considering your son or your daughter or your son in law or your daughter in law, they are going to have an advantage. That's why nepotism is prohibited."

But Judge Robinson insists he did not understand that the rule applied to him when he hired Lyell Sloan, the then-22-year-old high school graduate who'd married his daughter.

Sloan now makes $50,000 a year.

"Did he have the qualifications to be a court officer other than being your son in law?" Williams asked the judge.

"Yes, sir. I think so," Robinson answered. "He had service with the sheriff's department. He had service with a security company, yes, sir."

Even though Robinson once sat on the court that regulates Tennessee judges, he says he looked at the rule and concluded it did not apply to county judges like himself.

A commentary attached to the rule -- "a judge shall avoid nepotism" -- refers to the state nepotism statute for help in interpretation.

"I don't see how he could possibly suggest that he's exempted from this," Cunningham said. "This clearly applies to judges."

Robinson didn't argue.

"Right or wrong, I didn't interpret that properly, and I did hire him. And I was wrong. I mean, I'm wrong."

In Judge Dumas' case, she hired her daughter, Kim Levitan, in late 2005. Levitan was a college graduate with a degree in fine arts.

"And what made you think that she could do the job?" Williams asked her.

"'Cause she's very smart," Dumas replied.

"Did she have any experience?"

"Did she have any experience in being in the courtroom? No."

For 10 months, Levitan worked in her mom's court. The salary at the time: $44,000 a year.

Still, Dumas admits she knew that there were rules against nepotism.

"Because I was bringing her in on a temporary basis, I just did not think it was an issue," she said.

Williams asked, "If a defendant told you, 'Judge, I violated the law, but I only did it on a temporary basis,' would you accept that?"

"I don't know how to answer a question like that," Dumas said.

But Cunningham didn't hesitate.

"Well, I know how to answer it -- and I think anybody would know how to answer it. You don't allow favoritism on a temporary basis or on a permanent basis or on any kind of basis."

The rules that prohibit nepotism also say that judges have an obligation to report other judges who may be engaged in misconduct.

Yet, instead of speaking up, these judges say their colleagues kept their mouths shut.

"Did anyone ever pick up the phone and come see you and say. 'Judge, I really don't think you ought to be doing this?'" Williams asked Dumas.

"No," the judge insisted.

Williams asked Robinson, "Were you aware that her daughter was working for her?"

"Phil, I can only be responsible for Gale," Robinson answered. "I really don't want to go there, to be quite honest."

Williams asked Dumas, "Did you know that he hired his son in law?"

"I don't know that I know that he hired his son-in-law," she replied. "Were there rumors floating around this courthouse about different things? There are always rumors floating around this courthouse about different things. Do I pay attention to them? Try not to."

But critics say when judges are willing to ignore their own ethics rules, it undermines the decisions they make involving everyday citizens.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates put that question to Robinson, who currently serves as the presiding judge of the General Sessions Court.

"If judges are hiring family members in violation of the canons -- and none of the judges are picking up the phone and saying, 'Judge, this is wrong,' or calling the Court of the Judiciary and saying, 'There's a problem here,' does that say something about the culture around this courthouse?" Williams asked.

"I think it probably does, yes, sir."

"What do you think that says?"

"Probably that we tend to our own business too much."

Cunningham said that's not a good excuse.

"They are the ones that judge us. If they don't uphold these rules and these standards, who can we expect to uphold the rules and standards."

There other examples of nepotism around the courthouse. One judge has a cousin working as a court officer. But the rules don't apply to cousins.

Judge Dumas' daughter doesn't work for her anymore.

Judge Robinson's son-in-law has now gone to work for Judge Casey Moreland -- they traded court officers.

It's an example of the indirect nepotism -- where judges hire each others relatives -- that's fairly common around the courthouse.

But it doesn't violate the ethics rules.

Both Judges Robinson and Dumas say they've reported themselves to the Court of the Judiciary.

That's the court that regulates judges and decides if they should be reprimanded.

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