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July 27, 2014

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District judge who endorsed counseling service could face investigation, expert says

Disciplinary process for judges is slow and secretive

District Judge Doug Smith

District Judge Doug Smith

District Judge Doug Smith could face punishment from his peers for endorsing a court-connected counseling company that police are investigating, experts say.

“In general, judges should not be endorsing any private vendors,” UNLV law professor Jeff Stempel said. “The better practice would be not to get into that type of thing at all.”

Stempel, who teaches professional responsibility at the UNLV Boyd School of Law, said Smith’s actions could give the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline something to investigate.

But most of those proceedings, which generally start with a complaint from a member of the public or legal profession, are conducted behind closed doors.

The process becomes public months, sometimes a couple of years, down the road if the commission, following a confidential investigation, decides to issue a formal complaint against the judge.

David Sarnowski, executive director of the Judicial Discipline Commission, declined to comment on Smith’s conduct, saying he is forbidden by state law from publicly discussing judges.

Smith also declined to comment.

Stempel explained that the state’s judicial conduct code requires judges to uphold the integrity of their profession and avoid any impropriety or appearance of impropriety.

The severity of any possible sanctions against Smith in this case would depend on whether he was profiting from endorsing the program, Stempel said.

“It’s a much more serious thing if a judge is endorsing a company and getting paid for it,” he said.

Smith’s name surfaced this week in the Metro Police investigation of United States Justice Associates over the company’s efforts to lure people detained at casinos on minor charges into a private program that kept them from being arrested by police. Detectives raided the company’s office looking for evidence that those being recruited into the program were allegedly being extorted.

Steven Brox, the president of United States Justice Associates, told the Sun that he simply was “able to win (Smith) over,” as he went about soliciting business from casinos and other companies.

Brox said he did not pay Smith for his help, but he acknowledged making “nominal” contributions to Smith’s campaigns for office over the years. State records show United States Justice Associates has made several $500 contributions since 2004, including at least one in 2008.

Following the raid, detectives interviewed Smith, a former Las Vegas justice of the peace, about his ties to Brox and United States Justice Associates.

Among other things, Smith had arranged and attended a meeting in which Brox pitched the program to then-Sheriff Bill Young toward the end of his term in office. The judge also attended a pitch to Young’s successor, Doug Gillespie. Both sheriffs said they declined to lend the police department’s support to Brox’s program.

Brox said Smith also attended a security chiefs meeting in which Brox discussed the program and was on hand for “less than a handful” of other pitches to businesses.

Smith also provided Brox with several letters endorsing the services offered by United States Justice Associates, sources close to the investigation said. Those letters were given to casinos and other businesses during some of Brox’s pitches.

One letter obtained by the Sun was on Smith’s letterhead as chief justice of the peace.

In the letter, which began “To whom it may concern,” Smith says he “wholeheartedly, without reservation” recommends the company.

“I have used many counseling services over the past 15 years,” Smith wrote. “I have never used one that is better than United States Justice Associates. This court service could assist the courts and private enterprises in reducing unnecessary court fees, costs and appearances.”

The judge’s endorsement gave the company’s private business venture credibility as it solicited business on the Strip and elsewhere.

A Planet Hollywood security chief told detectives that a letter he saw carried weight with him when it was presented during a company pitch at the resort this year.

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