BRISTOL, Va. – Judge Kurt Pomrenke told a judicial review panel last month he was “dead wrong” for contacting potential witnesses prior to his wife’s trial on corruption charges.
Pomrenke, 63, a juvenile and domestic relations court judge for Bristol, Virginia, Washington and Smyth counties, made that assertion and others during a June 13 evidentiary hearing before the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission of Virginia.
The Bristol Herald Courier obtained a copy of the transcript of the hearing in Richmond.
On July 10, the commission filed a formal complaint against Pomrenke, stating he “engaged in conduct prejudicial to the proper administration of justice” and that conduct is “of sufficient gravity to constitute the basis for retirement, censure or removal.”
The commission issued a formal notice in January, charging Pomrenke with violating the Canons of Judicial Conduct for contacting two BVU Authority employees. Last month, the commission heard testimony from Pomrenke and others then issued its complaint.
The Virginia Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in October and, if Pomrenke is found to have violated conduct rules, determine if sanctions of retirement, censure or removal should be imposed.
Both of the contacts occurred before the February 2016 trial of the judge’s wife, Stacey Pomrenke -- BVU’s former chief financial officer -- on federal corruption charges. She was subsequently convicted and is currently serving her sentence in Alderson, West Virginia.
The commission charged Kurt Pomrenke violated three canons – numbers 1, 2A and 2B, which are to:
Uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary by observing, maintaining and enforcing high standards of conduct.
Avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of your activities and act, at all times, in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
Refrain from lending the prestige of your judicial office to advance the private interests of you or others and refrain from testifying as a character witness.
During his testimony, Pomrenke told the seven-member panel of judges, attorneys and citizens that he hadn’t fully understood the canons that govern judicial conduct.
“I read them [canons]. I thought I understood them. I thought it makes sense and I find now that I didn't -- I didn't understand them. I didn't follow them,” Pomrenke told the commission. “I, I, I did something that I truly regret.”
When Stacey Pomrenke was indicted in October 2015, the court ordered that neither she nor anyone except her attorneys contact potential witnesses.
On Nov. 18, 2015, three weeks after the indictment was handed down, Judge Pomrenke sent a thank you note to her boss, authority President and CEO Don Bowman and enclosed his judicial business card.
On Feb. 13, 2016, days before the trial, the judge left a voice message on BVU employee Connie Moffatt’s cell phone, urging her to say nice things about his wife if she was called to testify.
“At the time I sent the note to Mr. Bowman, at the time I made the phone call to Connie, I truly was acting like a husband. I felt - I felt kind of helpless. She was going through this process, we had lawyers, I just -- I just felt helpless,” Kurt Pomrenke told the commission. “I felt like I need to be doing more as her husband, and I never ever thought about the Canons, I never thought about it was not right because I was a judge, I frankly didn't think about it and it was wrong. It was dead wrong.”
In his note to Bowman, the judge expressed thanks and then voiced his own belief in his wife’s innocence.
“Hi Don: I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your kindness and understanding and support for Stacey during these horrible times,” Pomrenke wrote. “By now I am sure you would agree she is absolutely honest, truthful, ethical and innocent. It is horrible what our government is doing to her. She will be proven innocent. Thank you for believing in her. Kurt Pomrenke.”
During his testimony, Bowman said he viewed the note as intimidation, in part because Judge Pomrenke previously served on the BVU board.
“I just feel like judges are very powerful political influences, especially when you are in a small community with few people,” Bowman told the commission. “And so, while he couldn't come in one day and fire me, this is a board and the operation of a board where he knows an awful lot of people, including our former general counsel, Walt Bressler. And so I was always very guarded about the situation. I certainly wouldn't want to make Judge Pomrenke mad at me.”
Bowman said receiving the note with the business card was “shocking” and that he disagreed with the judge’s assertions about Stacey Pomrenke’s character.
“I didn't think she was honest, I didn't think she was particularly hard-working like - and I didn't think that she would be found innocent,” Bowman testified. “I, in fact, felt like she would most likely be guilty. In fact, I talked to her that she might want to really talk to the feds and try to get the best deal.”
Bowman said that during the federal investigation Stacey Pomrenke would not speak with or cooperate with federal investigators who – at that time - were looking into a range of corruption issues at BVU. At one point, investigators temporarily occupied offices on either side of her.
Judge Pomrenke testified that he “absolutely” never intended to intimidate Bowman but to express thanks.
“I sent the thank you note just to sincerely thank Mr. Bowman for supporting her, for -- it sounded to me, through Stacey, that he believed in her and he was being nice to her, and he could have let her go and he didn't,” the judge said. “When I sent that card, I was sending it as a husband. It never dawned on me that he might take it wrong as coming from a judge. It never, it never ever dawned on me.”
Bowman testified he didn’t suspend her or attempt to fire her -- following her indictment -- because he feared her employment contract would force BVU to pay her up to $2.5 million. At that time, the trial was scheduled to begin the first week of January but was subsequently reset for mid-February. Stacey Pomrenke’s employment was terminated following her conviction.
In regard to the voicemail, the judge told the commission that his wife and Moffatt were friends and worked together for many years. He called Moffatt one night, while driving home and urged her to say “little remarks like how Stacey did a great job or Stacey really took care of the employees or Stacey is just honest,” if she was called to testify.
The judge told the commission he didn’t think through the ramifications of his actions.
“I picked up the phone, I called her and just wanted to talk to her and try to get her to help us, and, again, I was thinking as a husband whose wife is going to trial in three days. I was terrified. I was scared to death,” the judge said. “I kept thinking all along this was never going to happen and I was wrong on every -- I was wrong on everything. It was happening.”
Moffatt’s name did not appear on either the prosecution or defense witness lists, court records show. Bowman’s name appeared on the prosecution’s witness lists issued Feb. 5 and Feb. 15, 2016, but wasn’t called to testify during the trial.
Judge Pomrenke apologized to the commission, saying since this review began he has studied the guidelines and now fully understands them.
“I see how it could have conveyed the wrong message to Mr. Bowman or to other people in the community, I see that now. I see that, even though Connie was a good close friend, that she was a potential witness, I couldn't do that. I just couldn't do that. I did it, and I shouldn't have done it,” Pomrenke said. “I just wanted to tell you, before we got into all the other materials, I just wanted to tell you, I get it. I understand. I am sorry. And I'm -- I'm trying to do better.”