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Senate hopeful touts 2007 judicial panel’s conclusion

Former state Rep. and District Court Judge Mike Padden announced Feb. 21 that he is a candidate for the 4th District state Senate seat vacated last month by Bob McCaslin. (John Craig / The Spokesman-Review)
Former state Rep. and District Court Judge Mike Padden announced Feb. 21 that he is a candidate for the 4th District state Senate seat vacated last month by Bob McCaslin. (John Craig / The Spokesman-Review)

State Senate hopeful Mike Padden, a former Spokane County District Court judge, is trying to head off a potential campaign issue.

At Padden’s request, the state Commission on Judicial Conduct has issued a statement confirming that it examined complaints about Padden’s 1999 selection of a former client as the official collection agency for District Court but found nothing to support an ethicis violations. The commission typically acknowledges complaints only if it disciplines or sanctions a judge.

The agency, however, refused to disclose how it arrived at its conclusion or what the initial examination entailed.

Reiko Callner, executive director of the CJC, said state guidelines prohibit her from discussing those kinds of details, including whether it took into account that Padden no longer was serving as a judge when it decided in 2007 against opening a full investigation.

“We are obliged to do our own independent investigation and our own assessment,” she said. “Confidentiality is almost absolute in dismissed cases.” Virtually the only way for information about probes that don’t lead to sanctions is for the judge in question to request it, Callner said.

The only other time the CJC made public an unfounded investigation came at the request of another Spokane County District Court Judge, Donna Wilson. Callner said Wilson requested a similar statement after the CJC investigated allegations that attorneys and jurors caught her reading a romance novel in 1993 while presiding over a trial.

In an interview this week, Padden said he personally asked the CJC to reveal the findings from October 2007 as he challenges recently appointed state Rep. Jeff Baxter, R-Spokane Valley, for the 4th Legislative District seat that had been filled for decades by the late Bob McCaslin.

Concerns over Padden’s connections to Valley Empire’s selection for the court contract were raised in a 2007 Spokesman-Review article. Padden served as legal counsel for the company when he was in private practice, and later as a judge served as chairman of the committee that chose Valley Empire over the objection of some committee members because its fees were the second-highest of the 10 applicants for the lucrative contract.

“I self-reported it after the article … because I was concerned,” Padden said of how the CJC learned of the concerns. “I didn’t feel a number of the inferences or allegations were correct.”

Asked what he believed to be incorrect in the Jan. 7, 2007, article titled “Judge’s Clout Cost Citizens,” Padden said he hasn’t read the article in a long time and gave no specifics.

The article also detailed how in 1995, while serving in the Legislature and working as an attorney for Valley Empire Collection, Padden co-sponsored a bill, later made law, ?that he personally benefited from. The legislation allows collection agencies to automatically add a $125 attorney fee to any contested collections case against individuals who bounced checks even if the case does not go to trial.

Four years later, after being appointed District Court judge, Padden successfully advocated hiring Valley Empire Collection to handle collections of past-due District Court accounts despite objections from half of the six-person selection panel. Of the 10 bids submitted, eight agencies would have charged lower fees than Valley Empire.

In 2001, Padden’s son was given a paid internship at Peterson Enterprises, which owns Valley Empire Collection. The following year, Padden did not recuse himself and voted with other judges to expand Valley Empire Collection’s business by awarding it a second contract to handle all Municipal Court collections as well.

Padden said in a 2006 interview that he recognized the appearance of conflict by having his oldest son, Justin, taking the paid summer job with Valley Empire.

“In hindsight, would you have done something maybe a little different? Yeah,” Padden said in 2006. “Would I have been happier if Justin (hadn’t) taken that job? Yes. But I had to stand by my son. He did a good job. It certainly didn’t impact anything, any decisions that I made.”

The issue essentially remained dormant until the Commission on Judicial Conduct released a statement last month, noting that it rarely releases information about investigations that don’t result in ethics violations or discipline.

“The judge was publicly associated with impropriety in his role in the selection of a collection agency that performed collections for the Spokane County District Court. Following its independent investigation, the Commission dismissed the complaint at its meeting in October 2007,” the statement reads.

As for Padden, he said he asked the CJC to release the findings after reading critical blog posts resulting from his announcement that he would run for McCaslin’s seat.

“What I can say, and the attorney who represents me can say, is there was an investigation and they found there wasn’t probable cause. I can say that, but it doesn’t carry the weight of the commission doing it themselves,” he said. “They looked into the whole article and didn’t find any impropriety on my part.”