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Racine County judge responds to misconduct allegations

A Racine County judge is admitting to allegations that he violated the state’s judicial code.

The Judicial Commission filed a complaint in June alleging that Racine County Circuit Court Judge Michael Piontek had violated five of the ethics rules pertaining to state judges.

According to the allegations, Piontek initiated ex parte communications about a pending case, failed to recuse himself from a case, failed to perform his judicial duties without bias or prejudice and failed to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.

The allegations stem from two criminal cases that Piontek presided over.

While presiding over a misdemeanor fraud and theft case from August 2014 to February 2015, Piontek made a phone call to the prosecutor involved saying that he wanted to make sure the case went to trial, that any plea deal reached would involve the defendant being convicted of a felony and that he believed that people like the defendant who involve themselves in scams need to be stopped.

Piontek did not notify the opposing counsel that he would be making the call, according to the complaint.

The prosecutor drafted a letter summarizing an account of the call, sent a copy to the defendant’s attorney and submitted a copy to Piontek in February 2015. According to the complaint, Piontek recused himself from the case shortly after that.

The second case involved a criminal proceeding that Piontek presided over from August 2014 to August 2015. The criminal defendant, a former nurse, had already pleaded guilty in June 2014 to two of the three felonies she had been charged with before a different judge, and her sentencing was scheduled before Piontek in October 2014.

Piontek independently researched the criminal defendant online, looking up her nursing licenses and related matters in several states, according to the complaint. He did not give notice to the attorneys in the case that he was doing that and only told them about his investigation after they completed their arguments at a sentencing hearing. Piontek used the findings of his investigation in fashioning a sentence for the defendant, according to the commission.

Piontek, represented by Patrick Cafferty of Racine-based Cafferty Law Office, filed a response on July 16 to the commission’s complaint, admitting to all the allegations in the commission’s complaint. He wrote that he understands that his actions in both cases amounted to judicial-code violations and that he regrets the mistakes.

Piontek noted that in the case involving the former nurse, he believed he was acting within his role as a judge and that his “actions were a result of his naivete of being new to the bench and starting his first judicial rotation with an overwhelmingly large caseload in felony court.”

He also noted that, in the first case, which involved an insurance scam, the prosecutor assigned to the case made an informal visit – before the phone call described in the complaint – to Piontek’s chambers to request an adjournment of the trial.

However, Piontek contended that the panel should take into account certain mitigating factors, including that he has handled more than 10,000 cases without any complaints and practiced law for more than 40 years without once being disciplined.

Piontek, who graduated from Marquette University Law School in 1974, has been on the bench since 2012; he was re-elected this year. Before that, Piontek had worked in private practice.

The chief judge of the Court of Appeals, Lisa Neubauer, appointed a panel of appeals-court judges on June 14 to preside over Piontek’s case and make recommendations to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The panel includes District 4 Court of Appeals Judge Paul Lundsten, District 3 Court of Appeals Judge Lisa Stark and District 1 Court of Appeals Judge Timothy Dugan. Lundsten is leading the panel as presiding judge.

The high court will review the panel’s recommendations and issue a final decision in the matter.

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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