The chief judge of Wisconsin's Ninth Judicial District has disciplined the Lincoln County clerk of courts, Cindy Kimmons, for inappropriate conduct in which Kimmons placed an offensive personal note in a woman's case file impugning that woman's character.
The incident involved a paternity case. At one point, the woman had sought to negotiate a payment plan for an outstanding debt to the court, and had sent a letter to the clerk's office asking for such an arrangement instead of the clerk's intercept of a state tax refund.
An office employee attached a Post-it note to the letter - "Cindy, what do you want me to do with this?" - and forwarded it to Kimmons. The clerk's handwritten response, also on a Post-it note and then attached to the letter in the case file, included far more than just a decision on the request for a payment plan.
"First, tell her that I have no sympathy for anyone who is screwing my friend's husband," Kimmons wrote. "Second, tell her to tie her legs together. She shouldn't have (that many) kids if she can't take care of them."
Kimmons then stated: "Third, but seriously, I will not discuss this until I have the refund in hand."
The woman discovered the note last June, several years after it was written, when she looked at the case file at the courthouse and approached the court expressing dismay and emotional distress.
Chief judge shocked
After an investigation, the chief judge of the Ninth judicial district, Greg Grau, admonished Kimmons in an Oct. 7, 2009, letter. Grau expressed disbelief at the conduct.
"Moreover this mother's feelings of anger, hurt and disgust are absolutely warranted," Grau wrote. "I truly cannot believe that a note with the above content authored by an elected public officials was held in a Lincoln County court file. Your actions caused a citizen to experience something no citizen should ever have to experience. I fully expect that no citizen will ever experience anything remotely similar to this under your watch in the future."
Kimmons herself said she regretted her mistake, which she called a "one-time incident," and court officials told the The Lakeland Times they, too, believe the incident was an isolated one.
However, while officials did review all files related to the family in the incident, the court did not allow the district court administrator, Susan Byrnes, to review all the files in the clerk's office, as Byrnes had suggested during the investigation.
The chain of events
Events began to unfold several years after the note was actually written, in June when the woman went to the courthouse to make copies of legal documents in her case file. After discovering the handwritten notes, the woman wrote Byrnes expressing her anger and accusing Kimmons of bias.
"I was in total shock standing at that counter reading this," the woman wrote. "My eyes filled with tears, I payed for my copies and left quickly. Hurt, anger and disgust came over me as I thought, How dare an elected official make a financial decision based on disgusting personal bias. Seeing she had these feelings about me, she should have handed my request to another official."
The woman asked Byrnes if elected officials had to follow an ethics code, if there were consequences if that code was violated, and if elected officials were allowed to make decisions based on personal opinion.
She also wondered how many other women might have received similar treatment.
"Very importantly, how many other single mothers has she made similar poor personal judgements on instead of simply following the rules and guidelines on making these financial decisions?" the woman asked.
One day after receiving the complaint, Grau ordered an investigation by Lincoln County judge Glenn Hartley and Byrnes, and Hartley met with Kimmons on Sept. 10, 2009.
According to a summary of that meeting written by Hartley, Kimmons said she did not remember writing the notes, had never met the woman or had a conversation with her, and wouldn't know her if she was standing next to her.
She did offer the judge a conjecture about the note's content, particularly the part about about having a relationship with her friend's husband. Apparently, she theorized, she was aware that the woman had a relationship "at one point or another some years ago" with a man who was married to a part-time employee in the clerk's office. The recollection is not clear whether the man was married at the time.
"This is the only explanation Cindy can give since she has no present recollection of writing any of those notes or comments," Hartley wrote.
As for the tax intercept, Kimmons said she handled that request the same way she handled all such requests, that is, she didn't discuss such matters until the check was received because they didn't know how much the check was going to be, how much of it should be applied, and whether a person's obligations, if they had fallen behind, were only temporary or a long-standing problem.
Kimmons also told the judge that, once an intercept was ordered, it was extremely difficult to attempt to end it.
As part of his investigation, Hartley also met with the aggrieved woman on Sept. 18, 2009, telling her the court would not tolerate such behavior.
"I extended to her my sincere and heartfelt apologies, indicating that this material had no business whatsoever in the file, and if I felt that there was anything like that in any other file in the office that it would be shaken down until it was found and removed overnight," Hartley wrote in his summary of that meeting.
During that meeting, the woman acknowledged her one-time relationship with the part-time employee's husband but emphasized that it occurred only after the man and part-time employee had separated.
Hartley also told the woman the file containing the notes had been a closed file so the general public would not have been able to see it, and he explained the process of tax intercepts and his belief that Kimmons had not treated the woman any differently than anybody else.
In addition, the judge discussed the potential ramifications of making the story public - the woman, he observed, made it clear that going public would "not bother her one little bit" - and he assured her the court would not simply let the matter drop.
The woman also relayed displeasure that the original notes had apparently been removed from the court file.
"She was quite upset that the original of that note had been removed from the file, or at least I assume it has been, and she wanted to know where it was," Hartley wrote. "I told her that I didn't know, but I explained to her that this was not a problem. Ms. Kimmons was not denying it, we had photocopies of it, and no one is ever going to try and make this situation disappear or be swept under the rug. She seemed to accept that."
This week, Byrnes said she directed Kimmons to remove the notes from the file because they should never have been a part of the file and to keep them until Byrnes could collect them. Byrnes subsequently did so and says they are now part of Kimmons' disciplinary file in Byrnes' office.
As for discipline, Hartley's summary indicates he told the woman the court had few options. Because Kimmons was an elected official, Hartley explained, the court's power was "basically a right of removal with cause" but that was a high standard to meet.
At a loss
At the end of his summary, Hartley ruminated about what role the court system really had.
"I'm quite at a loss as to how to approach this case," he wrote. "I'm a little unsure as to what our authority really is. I understand we have the authority to remove for cause, but do we have any authority to do anything less? I suppose we have the right to say this and this and this will be done, or we will seek to remove for cause, but I'm really not sure we want to interject ourselves that far into the process. On the other hand, if we do not now go public with this, we have interjected ourselves into the process and may be forced to make a recommendation or at least a call."
During their meeting, the woman said she did not want a personal apology from Kimmons, and she reiterated that in a Sept. 21, 2009, letter to Hartley. Instead, she wrote to Hartley, Kimmons should issue a broad public apology.
"After careful and lengthy consideration following our discussion on (Sept. 18), I'll have to agree with you, an apology is needed, but not just to me personally," the woman wrote. "I feel an apology needs to be made to Lincoln County taxpayers because she has disgraced the courts, me and my family."
The woman questioned whether such an event was truly isolated.
"The fact that she wrote this note and admitted to it tells us this is a part of her character," the woman wrote. "If such a note was found in one of my (work) files (at my job) I would be fired on the spot! There would be no investigation, no second chance, no excuses!"
The woman urged serious disciplinary action against Kimmons.
Isolated or not?
The woman was not the only one wondering whether the incident was truly isolated. Byrnes was concerned, too, and, in a Sept. 22, 2009, email to Hartley, suggested a review of all the files in the clerk of court's office to make sure.
"After I reviewed your second memo, I began to think about the CofC files in Lincoln Co.," Byrnes wrote. "It is one thing to speculate that no extraneous notes exist. It is another to verify that your files are clean."
It was her opinion, Byrnes stated, that Grau should use his authority under Supreme Court rules and direct Byrnes to conduct a thorough review of all the paper files in the office.
"When, if, this thing hits the press, I think the courts, and Lincoln Co. courts in particular, would be better off being able to definitively say your files are clean," she wrote. "That we acted on it to assure citizens."
It would be a huge undertaking and Kimmons could not participate, Byrnes continued, but with office staff and perhaps another volunteer, it could be accomplished.
"But, I know what to do, and I don't mind rolling up my sleeves," she concluded.
Hartley was not of the same mindset. He seemed inclined to chalk the matter up to an isolated occurrence.
"Susan that strikes me as a daunting task!!!" he replied. "I am not sure the search for another 'tacky and insensitive note' would justify that kind of outlay of cost. Especially, on the very low likelihood that there would be anything there. Let's give it some thought."
They did, and ultimately Byrnes' suggestion was rejected, though she did review the other files related to the woman and her family, Byrnes told The Lakeland Times this week.
"I did conduct a review of every file connected to that family," she said. "I wanted to check for a number of things, to make sure they were files like all the others, that there was nothing out of the ordinary. We feel this is an isolated incident. The event of an extraneous note is so rare and unusual that a complete review of all the files in the clerk's office was deemed not a good use of my time."
Don't do it again
Ultimately Grau, with the review of Byrnes and Hartley, wrote a letter of reprimand, dated Oct. 7, 2009, which included a request for a face-to-face meeting to underscore the contents of the letter. After summarizing the sequence of events, Grau stressed the need to treat citizens with fairness and impartiality.
"Lincoln County Presiding Judge Hartley has advised me that his investigation into this matter revealed that the final decision your office made on the tax intercept issue raised by the mother in this case was consistent with ongoing practice in the office," he wrote. "However, your note in the court file allows for the inference that the mother did not have her issues handled with fairness and impartiality. Citizens interaction with Lincoln County Clerk of Courts Office should never be left with this impression."
Grau cited his limited authority to deal with an elected official but, he pointed out, Supreme Court rules allow him to direct the activities of her office and to recommend or direct changes in it.
Still, Grau did not suggest any changes or discipline beyond an admonition not to let such a thing happen again.
"I expect that you will do everything possible to keep anything like this from happening again," Grau wrote. "I expect that all citizens dealing with your office hereafter will come away from the experience believing that they were dealt with fairly and impartially. I further expect that each of them will be afforded the dignity and respect they deserve."
Grau also sent the woman a letter outlining the court's actions.
In December, after The Lakeland Times made an open records request for the disciplinary file, Kimmons exercised her right as a public official to augment the file with a letter of her own.
In the letter, Kimmons was contrite.
"I regret the incident that lead (sic) to a written discipline on October 12, 2009, and an oral discipline on October 20, 2009, both given by District Chief Judge Grau," Kimmons wrote. "I have taken ownership of my mistake and guarantee this one time incident stands alone in my 13 years of service to the Lincoln County citizens, and is inconsistent of my unbiased nature."
Kimmons said she was still willing to apologize personally to the woman.
Reached by telephone prior to Christmas, Kimmons told The Lakeland Times she would not comment further or add to the statements in her letter.
"I have other information, but I don't wish it to be discussed with you," she told this reporter.
Richard Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted: Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Article comment by:
The one who owes the taxpayers an apology is the single woman who had 7 kids and expects the rest of us to pay for them
Posted: Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Article comment by:
Leslie Ann Farrar
I am shocked that the Court would refuse to dismiss the woman who perpetrated the misconduct.
We Americans have gotten to a point at which we accept too much misconduct and refuse to hold people - especially elected officials - responsible for their actions.
In this case, an apology - even a public one - is simply too little too late.