HOUSTON – A federal judge pleaded guilty Monday to lying to investigators about sexually abusing his secretary in exchange for prosecutors dropping five sex-crime charges alleging he groped two women.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent also retired Monday, effective immediately, possibly avoiding impeachment by Congress.
Kent's guilty plea to an obstruction of justice charge came as jury selection in his trial was set to begin.
According to the plea agreement, prosecutors will seek no more than three years in prison for Kent when he is sentenced on May 11. Obstruction, a felony, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The jurist, who once shouted in court that he would bring "hordes of witnesses" in his defense, spoke barely above a whisper as he pleaded guilty to lying to a judicial committee investigating the sex-related charges.
"Judge Kent believes this compromise settlement was in the best interests of all involved," his attorney, Dick DeGuerin said in a statement after the hearing. "A trial would have been embarrassing and difficult for all involved."
Kent, 59, had been facing six charges involving two women — five related to federal sex crimes and the obstruction charge.
Kent was the first federal judge charged with a sex crime and would have been one of only a handful to be tried. He and DeGeurin told the presiding judge that he was taking medication for depression and anxiety as well as diabetes and was under the care of both a psychiatrist and a psychologist.
If he had been convicted of the most serious federal sex crimes charges against him, Kent could have received a sentence of up to life in prison.
Kent, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, has been on the bench for nearly 19 years, serving most of that time as the lone judge in Galveston. Federal judges are appointed for life and can only be forcibly removed through impeachment by Congress.
Kent had vigorously maintained his innocence. DeGuerin had said the judge's conduct with the two women was mutual and consensual.
Prosecutors had said they would present evidence showing there was nothing consensual about what Kent did with the two women, Cathy McBroom, his former case manager, and Donna Wilkerson, the judge's current secretary.
The Associated Press does not normally name alleged victims of sexual abuse, but McBroom's attorney and her family have used her name in publicly discussing the case. Wilkerson appeared outside the federal courthouse with her lawyer, who used her name to reporters.
Both women were in the courtroom as Kent entered his guilty plea.
"I'm very happy this part of the process is over," McBroom said. "I feel extremely relieved and I look forward to the sentencing."
"This wouldn't have happened if she didn't have the courage to come forward," her lawyer, Rusty Hardin, said. They declined to take questions from reporters.
"We're happy today," said Terry Yates, Wilkerson's attorney. "The judge has accepted responsibility for what occurred. We look forward to May 11 (the sentencing date) and seeing that justice is done in this case."
Authorities first investigated Kent after McBroom filed a complaint against him in May 2007 and the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals began a probe.
McBroom accused Kent of harassing her over a four-year period, culminating in March 2007, when she said the judge pulled up her blouse and bra and tried to escalate contact until they were interrupted.
The judicial council suspended Kent in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him. It also transferred him to Houston, 50 miles northwest of Galveston, where he had worked since being appointed in 1990.
A Justice Department investigation of McBroom's claims led to Kent's indictment in August on three federal sex charges.
Last month, prosecutors added two more sex charges and the obstruction charge, accusing Kent of trying to engage his secretary in a sex act and then lying about it to the judicial council.
DeGuerin had said Kent and his secretary were involved in a longtime affair and he didn't reveal it to the judicial council because he was being a "gentleman."