The Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission recently filed nine counts of misconduct against Kenton County Family Court Judge Dawn M. Gentry, alleging that she abused her power to solicit sex and campaign donations from court staff and attorneys, and retaliated against them if they didn’t do what she asked. Gentry has denied those allegations.
“It’s all an abuse of power, a disregard for the rule of law — which is not what we’re looking for in a judge,” state Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Kenton County, told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Monday.
The case broke open last week after the Enquirer obtained documents detailing Gentry’s collection of alleged misdeeds and the state’s investigation. After the November 2018 election, Gentry allegedly hired a case specialist with whom she was having a sexual relationship — the guitarist in her rock band, South of Cincy — and pushed out one courtroom employee to make room for him on the staff, according to the charges. She allegedly had sex with the case specialist and another woman at the courthouse. And she allegedly asked an abused-children’s attorney to join her in a threesome — retaliating against her when she refused, the Enquirer reported, citing an affidavit.
Other attorneys alleged they were retaliated against after not making maximum campaign donations to Gentry before last year’s election.
“Any of the Counts described below, on their own, constitute sufficient grounds for disciplinary action,” the commission wrote. “But examined as a whole, the allegations in this Notice demonstrate a pattern of misconduct in office.”
Neither Gentry nor her attorney could immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday. But in filings to the state Judicial Conduct Commission, Gentry’s attorney denied most of the allegations on her behalf, emphasizing in capital letters that she never had a sexual relationship with her case specialist, and never had sex with anyone in the courthouse.
She admits other things, such as inadvertently allowing her children to witness confidential hearings involving a child they knew, or allowing guitar practice in her chambers. The case specialist she hired “did play guitar on occasion and she did not realize it was a distraction,” Gentry’s attorney, Stephen P. Ryan, wrote in the Dec. 2 answer to the complaint. “There is no longer guitar playing in her office.” She’s also been accused of drinking at work. In her response, she said she didn’t know her employees were drinking at work.
Gentry is expected to face a disciplinary hearing within the next couple of months, but on Monday, Koenig told the Enquirer that lawmakers might not want to wait that long. As an alternative, they’re weighing another possibility: impeachment.
Only four officials have ever been impeached in Kentucky state history, and two were convicted by the state Senate, the Enquirer reported. A Kentucky judge has not been impeached since 1916. One lawmaker who sits on the judiciary committee, Republican Rep. Jason Nemes, told the paper that if the serious allegations are true, he would “certainly recommend that Judge Gentry be impeached.”
Gentry was appointed to replace a retiring judge in 2016 by then-governor Matt Bevin (R). She was elected to another term in November 2018 — but the commission charges that the victory came with allegedly coerced help from court staff.
The commission said Gentry coerced staff and members of her guardian ad litem panel, which helps the court assess the best interests of neglected children, to participate in her judicial campaign. She allegedly pressured them to “donate the maximum amount to your campaign and to use personal time to engage in campaigning on your behalf,” the commission wrote. During work hours, court staff had to deliver campaign yard signs and write thank-you notes, the commission said.
For guardians ad litem or court staff who didn’t sufficiently help or donate, the commission says they faced retaliation. One attorney, Mike Hummel, says he was removed from the guardian panel and replaced with a significantly more generous donor. (Hummel also represented Gentry’s husband in their divorce, the Enquirer reported.) Gentry denied all these allegations and said the staff members who did assist in her campaign were only supposed to be working in their personal time, not at work.
But for others, discomfort with Gentry went beyond alleged forced campaigning.
According to the charges, Gentry made “inappropriate and unwanted sexual advances” toward one female attorney on Gentry’s panel for abused or neglected children. In an affidavit obtained by the Enquirer, the attorney said that she developed a casual friendship with the judge during the 2018 campaign — but things would soon escalate on Snapchat.
The attorney alleged that Gentry asked her to seduce the judge’s husband in exchange for a higher-paying position on the panel, the Enquirer reported. The woman thought it was a joke until Gentry continued to bring it up — at which point the attorney thought perhaps it was part of the judge’s plan to blame her husband for their looming divorce, according to the affidavit.
Later, the attorney said, Gentry asked her to join a threesome with the case specialist at a legal conference. To all of her alleged solicitations, the attorney said no.
“After I declined the request for the threesome encounter, I feared my panel position might be in jeopardy,” she wrote in the affidavit, according to the Enquirer.
The attorney filed motions seeking Gentry’s recusal in her cases, but she refused, according to the commission. Gentry later sent an attorney to question her about why she was “gossiping” about the judge — something the woman could have inferred as a warning to remain silent about the sexual advances, the commission noted. She ultimately resigned from the panel.
The state commission also charged that the case specialist Gentry hired — the guitarist from her band — wasn’t qualified for the job. He, Gentry and the judge’s secretary allegedly “engaged in sexual activity … in the courthouse, during work hours,” the commission charged.
“You hired [him] because you were engaged in a personal sexual relationship with him, not on the basis of merit,” the commission wrote. “You terminated [another employee] by forcing her to resign to create a job opening for [him]."
Gentry denied these allegations, insisting he was qualified based on his job experience in another county court.
Gentry now awaits the disciplinary hearing before the Kentucky Judicial Conduct Commission. According to the commission, she faces a range of discipline possibilities, including a public or private reprimand, suspension without pay or removal. She could also face disbarment.
The attorney who resigned from Gentry’s guardian ad litem panel wrote in the affidavit that she wanted to see an apology from Gentry to all those she harmed, according to the Enquirer.
“It is time for you to make amends,” she wrote. “To the voters, the community, to the people you have hurt, and displaced, and mistreated and abused, and left to feel worthless and small, and the people you intentionally instilled fear in because you feel so small.”