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Misconduct? Judge referred people to a lawyer he owed money
Judge Timothy Blakely said he was eager to see difficult divorces settled out of court. So, he assigned case after case to a St. Paul mediator Blakely swore he could trust. There were two problems:
The Goodhue County district judge stands accused of funneling 19 divorce cases to the law firm that handled his divorce in exchange for a steep reduction in his legal debt. He appeared Monday before a judicial fact-finding panel to fight allegations of misconduct.
The "quid pro quo" arrangement allegedly helped him slice two-thirds — nearly $64,000 — off a legal bill of $108,000 left over from his divorce, according to attorneys for the Minnesota Board on Judicial Standards, which filed a complaint against him in August.
In a November 2005 e-mail to attorney Christine Stroemer, Blakely said he was saddled with debts from his failed marriage and the six children he and his fiancee were raising together. He offered Stroemer the "lump sum" proceeds from the sale of his home as a compromise.
His e-mail to Stroemer reads:
"(My fiancee) and I are in a serious bind. ... A sizeable lump sum now may be preferable to very long-term payments. There is also very substantial past, and future, benefit to you from significant business referrals we have made."
Doug Kelley, an attorney for the Board on Judicial Standards, said the judge later offered to include Stroemer in a database of trusted civil mncourts.gov)
Blakely responded: "I do. And I know right from wrong."
The judge's former wife, Judith Blakely, alerted the Board on Judicial Standards to his alleged arrangement with Stroemer in April 2007.
In letters and e-mails to Stroemer, Blakely said his ex-wife had declared bankruptcy, complicating his finances.
Blakely, who has served as a judge in the First Judicial District since 1998, is chambered in Goodhue County and hears court cases throughout the seven-county district, including Dakota, Carver and Scott counties.
Legal proceedings could continue into Wednesday. Attorneys for Blakely have said the Hennepin County attorney's office has reviewed the allegations and declined to press charges.
Peppering the judge with questions, Kelley spent the morning walking Blakely through a chronology of his divorce, his mounting debts and the letters, phone calls and e-mails between Blakely and Stroemer.
In an Oct. 1, 2007, letter to the board, Blakely said he did not believe the number of cases he assigned to Stroemer's firm increased after his divorce. For mediation, the firm had always been a popular option among judges in the district, the judge said.
In the letter, he went on to regret some of the "stark" language in his e-mails to Stroemer and said his mention of "significant business referrals" in November 2005 was meant to describe the kind of referrals he made "regularly with friends and others who know that I am a judge (and) ask for the name of a lawyer who I think would do a good job for them."
Blakely told Stroemer in a February 2006 e-mail that he had a possible offer on his house that would produce a net proceed of $30,000 or $31,000. He hoped that would settle his bill.
"Wow, you are asking me to forego (sic) over $60,000 in earned fees," Stroemer e-mailed back, reluctantly accepting the compromise. "Nonetheless, it is my hope we continue a good relationship and that you continue to refer cases to me."
Kelley told Blakely: "Judge, did it not make you uncomfortable that in the discussion of the compromise, right in the middle of the e-mail, she's discussing the referrals?"
Said Blakely: "No. ... I remember getting this e-mail and thinking, thank God, it will be over."
Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172.