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Dave Olson, Published June 24 2013

Court reporter says Judge Corwin pushed for affair after being rebuffed

FARGO – A court reporter testified Monday before a hearing panel convened by the North Dakota Judicial Conduct Commission that Cass County District Court Judge Wickham Corwin pestered her for a sexual relationship and tried to undermine her professionally when she rebuffed him.

Corwin told the panel that there was a time when he and the court reporter became “overly familiar” and that it was a mistake on his part.

He denied, however, that he ever suggested or pursued an affair, and he said the steps he took over the course of months to try to talk in private with the court reporter were attempts to repair a damaged professional relationship.

“Unintentionally, I was making things worse,” Corwin said.

The court reporter, whom The Forum is not naming because she did not bring forth the allegations, told the panel Monday that she and Corwin went out for drinks after work and shared a bike ride on a summer evening in 2010.

She said after the bike ride she accepted an invitation to join Corwin for drinks at his home.

The woman said at one point in the evening Corwin’s comments turned flirtatious and she said she told the judge, who was and remains married, that she had read an article about the pitfalls of dating a co-worker and that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.

The woman said Corwin countered her statement with statements indicating he was open to an intimate relationship and that not all office romances end badly.

She said the evening ended with Corwin trying to kiss her on the lips, but she turned away so that his kiss landed on her cheek.

The court reporter said several days later, on a Sunday, Corwin called her cellphone to say he wanted her to bring some window drapes to the courthouse, where he was working on a bathroom remodeling project.

The court reporter, who earlier had volunteered to wash the drapes, said she told Corwin she would bring the drapes to the office the following Monday. She added that she told Corwin again that she wasn’t interested in dating him.

She said after that, Corwin invited her for another bike ride, which she declined, and she said “a couple of times” a week Corwin would call her into his office and close the door before talking to her, something she said made her very uncomfortable.

She also said Corwin once asked her to leave the office and go with him to a store to help him pick out things for the remodeling project.

The woman said Corwin became upset when she declined and used a vulgar word to show his displeasure.

Corwin told the panel what he said was dumb and rude.

“There’s no excuse,” he said. “Judges are not expected to speak to staff in that matter.”

The woman said something similar happened when she encountered Corwin in a grocery store.

She said she tried to avoid him, but he approached her in an aisle of the store and used a vulgar word to express his unhappiness with the situation.

Corwin said the incident didn’t happen exactly as the woman described, but he said he was angry at the time and did utter words similar to those he was quoted as having said.

The court reporter said after she repeatedly declined invitations from Corwin, he began making unreasonable work demands on her and she became fearful he would try to get her fired.

She said Corwin would compliment her work to her face, but then undermine her by criticizing her work to Rod Olson, the court administrator.

Olson told the panel that when he asked for input from judges as part of the court reporter’s performance review, District Court Judge Wade Webb sent him a brief message saying the reporter was doing a great job.

Olson said Corwin told him the court reporter’s typing jobs were not always completed in a timely manner and Olson said Corwin indicated he did not like the tone of some e-mails he had received from the court reporter.

It was an investigation into the court reporter’s job interview and Corwin’s criticism of her performance that led to allegations of sexual harassment coming to light.

When asked Monday why she didn’t lodge a complaint against Corwin, the court reporter said she refrained from doing so because she knew it would end up with her sitting in a chair and answering questions in front of a panel like the one she faced Monday.

Webb told the panel that during the spring of 2011 he began noticing the court reporter appeared troubled by something, but at first she wouldn’t share with him what was bothering her.

He said as months went by and he made repeated attempts to determine what was troubling her, she told him that Corwin was bothering her but she didn’t want to go into details.

Webb said even though the court reporter’s happiness at work seemed to be suffering, she always went about her job in a diligent, courteous, and professional manner.

“A good employee,” he said.

The hearing is expected to conclude today.

The hearing panel, which is comprised of a judge and three members of the public, has the power to forward a recommendation to the state Supreme Court that could include sanctions.

If sanctions are sought, they could range from censure, limiting of duties, suspension, removal, or retirement, according to Brent Edison, disciplinary counsel for the Judicial Conduct Commission.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555