RACINE — A Racine County judge has been accused of misconduct in office by the state’s judicial oversight panel.
The Wisconsin Judicial Commission accused Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Piontek this month of violating Supreme Court rules for judges’ behavior. Piontek was first elected as a circuit court judge in 2012 and was re-elected in April. The complaint, dated June 5, alleges violations by Piontek in two cases dating back to 2014. The commission found probable cause to file the complaint after the judge was notified of the allegations and provided an opportunity to respond.
One case involved a man who was charged in 2014 with theft worth more than $10,000, making fraudulent claims and obstructing an officer.
Piontek presided over the case, the Judicial Commission’s complaint states. The oversight board alleges that Piontek initiated a phone call from his chambers to the prosecutor about the case without notifying the defendant’s attorney or including the attorney in the phone call.
During the call, Piontek allegedly stated that he wanted to ensure the trial started on time, that he believed any plea deal should include a felony conviction and that “people like (the defendant) who involve themselves in scams like this need to be stopped.”
The prosecutor memorialized the phone call in a letter that summarized his account of the call and sent a copy to the defendant’s attorney and Piontek, the complaint states. The judge subsequently recused himself from the case.
The Judicial Commission argues that Piontek’s phone call violated the Supreme Court’s prohibition of ex parte communications concerning pending matters. His action also “diminished and continues to diminish public confidence in the judiciary and thereby does injury to the system of government under the law,” the complaint states.
Piontek is further accused of violating the obligation to promote public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judicial system and to act without bias or prejudice. The oversight commission also argues Piontek did not recuse himself quickly enough from the case.
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In a separate matter, the complaint states that Piontek was assigned to preside over the sentencing over a former nurse who had pleaded guilty to several criminal charges. The Judicial Commission alleges that Piontek initiated an independent online investigation concerning the defendant. He didn’t tell the parties in the case until after they made their arguments and statements at the sentencing hearing, the complaint claims. The judge allegedly used his investigation to determine a sentence.
The Judicial Commission accused Piontek of again engaging in ex parte communications and diminishing public confidence in the judiciary. He was also accused of failing to promote public confidence in the judiciary, similar to in the first case.
The commission requested that the chief judge of the Court of Appeals picks a three-judge panel to consider the matter.
Potential sanctions for misconduct include a reprimand, censure, suspension or removal, according to the Judicial Commission.
Piontek has until July 16 to answer the complaint, online court records show. He is represented in the case by attorney Patrick Cafferty.
In a statement emailed to The Journal Times, Cafferty said that he and his client are aware of the complaints filed against Piontek, “which involved two criminal defendants who were displeased with the outcome of their cases.”
He noted that no findings of wrongdoing had yet been made in the case and urged people to be patient and reserve judgment. Piontek has practiced law in Racine for 38 years without complaints filed against him, Cafferty stated.
“Judge Piontek has presided over 10,000 cases as a circuit court judge,” the statement reads in part. “The cases from which these two complaints stem occurred early in his first felony court rotation. Judge Piontek has served our community honorably.”
“Judge Piontek has presided over 10,000 cases as a circuit court judge. The cases from which these two complaints stem occurred early in his first felony court rotation. Judge Piontek has served our community honorably.” Attorney Patrick Cafferty
“Judge Piontek has presided over 10,000 cases as a circuit court judge. The cases from which these two complaints stem occurred early in his first felony court rotation. Judge Piontek has served our community honorably.”
Attorney Patrick Cafferty