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Published July 10, 2012, 11:30 PM

Judge Corwin reassigned after harassment investigation

FARGO – An investigation into a court reporter’s claims of sexual harassment and a hostile workplace environment resulted in Judge Wickham Corwin being reassigned to a team that doesn’t include the woman, according to court officials and an 83-page report on the probe.

FARGO – An investigation into a court reporter’s claims of sexual harassment and a hostile workplace environment resulted in Judge Wickham Corwin being reassigned to a team that doesn’t include the woman, according to court officials and an 83-page report on the probe.

Corwin told investigators that while he hoped to have an affair with the woman, who he kissed at his home after a bicycle ride together two years ago, he didn’t intend to start it right away and she misunderstood his intentions, the report says.

What he claimed were his repeated attempts to talk to the woman to clear up the matter – including closed-door meetings in his chambers and one conversation recorded in a courtroom – were characterized by her as an attempt to frighten and intimidate her because she didn’t go along with his advances.

“While Judge Corwin did not intend to threaten (the woman) or make her work environment uncomfortable, his actions had that effect,” the report concluded.

The State Court Administrator’s Office investigated the matter and submitted its findings in a March 14 report to the state’s Risk Management Division because of the potential for a lawsuit against the state.

Under North Dakota open records laws, the report became public 90 days after it was filed. The Forum obtained a copy through an open records request.

The Forum is not identifying the court reporter because she didn’t bring forth the allegations – they were uncovered during an investigation into her job performance, prompted by Corwin’s complaints in a performance review – and because State Court Administrator Sally Holewa said that to her knowledge, the woman hasn’t filed a lawsuit against the state or a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Commission.

In fact, the report says the woman was initially reluctant to speak with investigators, saying “she knew from the beginning that this would lead to trouble for her and she was prepared to fight for her job.” She only agreed to cooperate after being reassured that she wouldn’t be fired, the report says.

The court reporter did not respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday.

In a brief phone interview Tuesday, Corwin gave the following statement: “The court administrator’s report correctly concludes that I did not intend to threaten (the court reporter) or make her work environment uncomfortable. I regret any misunderstanding.” He added, “This is a thing that we all thought was behind us and life had gone on.”

Emails prompts probe

The woman told investigators she did not go to court officials, despite the urgings of other staff, in part because of her concern about the allegations being public in the same way they were after an investigation of Judge Michael McGuire nearly a decade ago.

McGuire, a Cass County judge, resigned in 2004, just before the start of a two-month suspension for his behavior toward women in the courthouse. The suspension followed an investigation and public hearing in which seven former or current female courthouse employees accused him of sexist remarks and inappropriate touching.

Instead, the allegations surfaced in January after Corwin claimed the court reporter was refusing to do the typing he requested and that the tone of her emails was insubordinate.

Corwin, who is married, disclosed to court administration on Jan. 18 that an incident had occurred that had created a misunderstanding. He was concerned the woman would allege sexual harassment if he raised issues about her work, the report says.

Corwin provided three emails to support his claims, which prompted a further search of email records by the judicial branch’s IT department.

The search unearthed three emails, one of which showed the woman telling Corwin she didn’t want a personal relationship and asking him to stop revisiting the issue.

“We are COWORKERS. Start acting like it! You are making me hate this job and feel ill having to come here because I don’t want to deal with you,” the woman wrote in a June 29, 2011, email. “There is no ‘problem,’ other than that I didn’t go along (with) your advances so now you are trying to make up problems to try and get rid of me, just like you told me you would do (get rid of me) if this were a private law firm.”

The email refers to a comment Corwin acknowledged making to her that if he were still working at a private law firm, he would have “taken care of the problem by now,” meaning he would have fired her. Corwin told investigators he regretted the remark and later apologized for it. He said it wasn’t intended to be a threat.

Two weeks after receiving the strongly worded email, Corwin responded to her with an email stating, “Our communications problems are profound.”

“I have repeatedly tried to talk to you, but only in an attempt to resolve the conflict and animus that exists between us,” he wrote. “Nothing more – no hidden agenda. If you imagined something different, you were badly mistaken.”

Disputed perceptions

Holewa’s office investigated the allegations on behalf of the reporter because she’s a state employee. Corwin is an elected official, now in the fourth year of a six-year term after his initial election in 2008.

According to the final report prepared by Holewa, what’s disputed by Corwin and the woman are the perceptions of each other’s intentions and reactions, and the meaning of the words “friendship” and “relationship” in their conversations, after she rejected his affair proposition on July 15, 2010.

Several of those instances are listed in the report, not disputed by either party:

July 18, 2010: Corwin called the woman at home on a Sunday and asked her to bring a set of blinds to the courthouse so he could hang them in a courthouse bathroom. She refused and told him she wasn’t going to get involved with him.

Early August 2010: When she refused to go to Pier 1 with him to look at accessories for a courthouse bathroom, Corwin told her to “stop being so (expletive) difficult.”

Aug. 9, 2010: The woman sent Corwin an email saying, “I do not want to be involved with you on any personal level whatsoever” and that she didn’t want to revisit the subject again.

Sometime later, Corwin arranged a lunch meeting with her in the park and told her he didn’t the like the email and she wasn’t to send him any more like it.

Afterward, Corwin continued to initiate conversations about their relationship and invite her to lunch on occasion.

Oct. 4, 2010: The woman, after receiving an email from Corwin asking her to call him, replied, “To save you the trouble of asking again, I’m (going) to pass on lunch permanently. None of the judges go to lunch (with) staff. Makes people talk. Don’t need/want that.”

Dec. 23, 2010: Corwin confronted the woman at a Hornbacher’s supermarket, saying, “Know what I want for Christmas? I want us to stop treating each other like (expletive).” The woman didn’t respond.

June 22, 2011: Before a court hearing, with the courtroom’s audio recording system turned on, Corwin began discussing their relationship.

“You know, I’d love to be able to just go back to where we were, but I just don’t think that’s what you’re interested in,” he said, according to a transcript of the recording.

June 28, 2011: As Corwin was leaving his office around 5:30 p.m., he noticed the woman was still at her desk and stopped by to talk about their relationship. He asked to “end the cold war and at least reach détente.”

“He told her that he needed to see her make the effort to come to his office to talk with him and he expected her to do this. She agreed that she would do this and he left,” the report says in notes from a meeting with Corwin on Feb. 1.

The next day, the woman sent the blistering email.

Betting on verdicts?

According to the report, Corwin said he and the court reporter had started work within months of each other and got along well. He said his feelings for her began to change after a window fell on his fingers at the courthouse and she took him to the hospital, remaining by his side until he was discharged.

In a paragraph of the report in which he talks about them having lunch together, Corwin said he and the woman “would have a small bet on the verdict of jury trials and when he would ask her what she bet, she would always bet lunch.”

Holewa, who was among those meeting with Corwin on Feb. 1 when he made the statement about the bets, said it wasn’t looked into.

Olson said any complaint against a judge about such an issue would be filed with the Judicial Conduct Commission. The panel’s proceedings are confidential, and its chairman said he could neither confirm nor deny whether a complaint had been filed.

Rod Olson, trial court administrator for the East Central Judicial District, which includes Cass County, said he plans to meet with court staff to discourage such behavior.

“I don’t think it’s a good reflection on us to have that,” he said.

Judge to move to annex

The report concluded that Corwin “did not recognize the effect of his organizational status” on the woman. He repeatedly mistook her verbal agreement, her unwillingness to contradict him and her silence as assent to his suggestions. When she

didn’t follow through on his suggestions, he initiated more conversations with her to try to understand why.

“These repeated conversations and suggestions continued despite her explicit instruction to him to stop,” the report says. “This caused (her) to dread coming to work and created a fear that she would lose her job.”

As a result, Corwin, who was previously paired with Judge Wade Webb, has been reassigned and paired with Judge John Irby. Webb is now with Judge Frank Racek, and the reporter reports to Webb and Racek, Olson said.

In addition to Corwin’s reassignment, plans have been made to move his chambers to the new courthouse annex when it’s completed later this summer. The woman will remain in the original courthouse, minimizing the chances they’ll cross paths, the report says.

Corwin also was directed not to initiate any further conversations with the woman regarding their relationship or the investigation, the report says.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528