Another “true crime” book is being published later this month. But Code of Silence by Lise Olsen is not like most books — or podcasts — of that popular genre.
For starters, there is no murder. We know who dunnit from the beginning. And it is anything but insensitive toward the victims and their families, a common criticism of many true crime stories.
The culprit this time wasn’t a marginal member of society. U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent was a federal judge, known for both his brilliance and his bullying.
The woman who minimized the severity of his crimes is also a federal judge, one who grew up in San Antonio and had been on lists of potential U.S. Supreme Court justices during the tenures of both Presidents Bush.
The publisher refers to “the case that led to the first and only judge to be impeached for sex crimes, told by the investigative journalist who broke the story.”
Lise Olsen was a colleague during my decade at the Houston Chronicle. She did a great job on this story, cracking the culture of secrecy at the federal courthouse on the somewhat isolated island of Galveston, a courthouse ruled by a man whose power was only enhanced by the fact that he was the sole federal judge there.
Starting only with rumors, Olsen tracked down the people who knew the story and won their confidence, even that of the most vulnerable and heroic figure in this sad tale — Kent’s case manager Cathy McBroom. One of the strengths of the book is that it describes in detail the ongoing agony of the victims of sexual harassment and assault by powerful bosses.
It took time and courage for McBroom to decide to take on her powerful boss, jeopardizing her reputation and the career she loved. She found no support from supervisory staff, who advised her not to file a complaint, or from coworkers, some of whom were covering up their own experiences with Kent.
She was left on her own even by the uniformed courthouse security staff, members of which were just outside when Kent took her into a room to assault her, but were gone when she came out, disheveled and shaken.
Powerful outsiders would lie about her as well. Olsen’s news stories prompted a number of columns from me. As a result I received a phone call from a prominent attorney active in Democratic politics who assured me that Kent, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, was innocent. The “girl,” he said, was a well-known flirt who came on to Kent. It was a theme that would be taken up by Kent’s famous criminal defense lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, who described the sex as “enthusiastically consensual.”
The lawyer who called me was chummy with the Chronicle’s editor. Later, after another column or two, he called the editor and confided, “Casey didn’t buy my bullshit.”
Neither did Edith Jones, whose job as chief judge of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals was to lead the investigation into the complaint that Cathy McBroom eventually filed. Jones — who grew up in San Antonio, excelled at the University of Texas law school and became the first woman partner at a prominent Houston law firm — clearly did not believe Kent. Nevertheless, she worked to shield him from the full consequences of his crime.
The first thing Jones did was to hire a law firm from Louisiana to conduct an investigation of McBroom’s complaint, a firm that had practiced in Kent’s court and that had no known background in investigating complaints involving sexual behavior in the workplace. The law firm produced a report for a three-judge panel headed by Jones.
Based on the firm’s findings, which were not released to the public, Jones and her panel would produce a secret report and recommendations for consideration of the 5th Circuit Judicial Council. The council, with 19 or so members, included both district judges and appellate judges from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.
The council met behind closed doors in New Orleans to act on the findings of Jones’ committee. The council voted to suspend Kent for four months and to remove him from his Galveston domain to Houston, where other judges were more likely to be aware of his behavior. The decision came without the full panel hearing from McBroom, nor was she allowed to see and rebut any statements provided by Kent.
A public statement by the council listed few details, saying only that the punishment was for “sexual harassment” of an “employee.” Reportedly five judges on the council dissented. The reason? Kent wasn’t accused of “sexual harassment,” as though he had behaved like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, making inappropriate suggestions, asking inappropriate questions, and not subtly hinting that he would like to have affairs with employees. As Cuomo found out, that would have been bad enough.
McBroom accused him of sexual harassment and more, detailing two occasions that went considerably beyond. On one of them he pressed her against the wall, reached under her blouse, pushed up her bra, and put his mouth on her breast. Then, she said, he forcibly pushed her head down to his crotch.
Under Texas law that behavior constitutes felony assault with a punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Because the assault took place at a federal courthouse it was covered by federal law, under which Kent’s actions would be characterized as “abusive sexual contact” with a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Jones would not have pushed for any punishment if she believed McBroom was lying, as Kent and his lawyer argued. So why would she minimize the offense?
Jones has a long history of judicial hostility to women’s complaints, displayed most famously in a case titled Waltman v. International Paper in 1989. A woman in an industrial situation was propositioned, groped, and grabbed by male employees. Pornography and tampons were left in her locker and employees broadcast obscene comments about her over the company’s public address system.
When these and other allegations were detailed during an appellate hearing, Jones asked, “They didn’t rape her, did they?” The comment drew audible gasps in the courtroom. The woman’s lawyer replied that “one of the guys pinched her breast.” Jones’ answered, “Well, he apologized.”
The majority of the panel found in the woman’s favor. Jones dissented.
The Kent story has a happy ending, sort of. After the 2007 reprimand by the judicial council, Kent was indicted in 2008 on federal charges of abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a female employee.
Kent had a great lawyer. You may have seen Dick DeGuerin’s name last week as the attorney representing millionaire Robert Durst. Durst was convicted of murder in the death of a woman in California, but DeGuerin got Durst off on an earlier murder charge despite the defendant admitting he killed his next door neighbor, dismembered the body, and dumped it into Galveston Bay.
But McBroom had an equally legendary and skilled attorney in Rusty Hardin, who represented her pro bono. A former prosecutor, Hardin put his investigator on the case, found witnesses the lawyers hired by Jones had missed, and delivered his findings to federal prosecutors. An FBI investigation ensued.
Kent got a sweet deal. Five sexual abuse counts against him involving McBroom and another employee were dropped, though he was required to admit in court that the accusations were true. He avoided having to register as a sex offender after pleading guilty to a single count of obstruction of justice for lying to the judicial council. He was sentenced to 33 months in prison, but served only 25 months with the last eight months under house arrest.
Kent lost his law license but attempted to hold onto his pension. He resigned from the bench in 2009 only after being impeached in the U.S. House of Representatives. Then-San Antonio Rep. Lamar Smith championed the impeachment.
Olsen’s book covers the twists and turns of McBroom’s case thoroughly. It accomplishes two other goals. She lays out the devastation men like Kent can wreak on women who work for them, the impact not only on their careers and their marriages, but also the trauma that can lead to PTSD.
Olsen also lays out the reality that in spite of efforts to reform our federal court system after the Kent scandal, the system offers little if any protection for victims of sexual misbehavior by judges. The shield of secrecy leads to a troubling conclusion: There are too many Judge Kents and too few Cathy McBrooms willing to speak out.