HOUSTON – A disgraced federal judge was sentenced Monday to nearly three years in prison for lying to investigators about sexually abusing two female employees, who said they feared him so much they hid from him in the courthouse.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent stared at the floor while the women described years of harassment and abuse at the Galveston courthouse where he wielded great authority as the only federal judge. He apologized to his wife, his family and the federal court staff but never specifically referred to the two women.
He could have received up to 20 years in prison, but prosecutors said they wouldn't seek more than three years under a plea agreement. He also was fined $1,000 and ordered to pay $6,550 in restitution to the secretary and case manager whose complaints resulted in the first sex abuse case ever against a sitting federal judge.
"Your wrongful conduct is a huge black X, a smear on the legal profession, a stain on the judicial system itself, a matter of concern in the federal courts," said U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson, a visiting senior judge called in from Pensacola, Fla.
Vinson ordered Kent, 59, to surrender June 15 for transfer to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons and to serve three years' probation once his 33-month sentence is completed. He also was ordered to participate in an alcohol-abuse program while in prison.
The chairman of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee and its ranking Republican demanded that Kent resign immediately from the bench Monday. His lawyer has said he retired rather than resigned, which would allow him to continue drawing a federal judge's salary.
"Unless Judge Samuel Kent immediately resigns, we intend to introduce a resolution jointly tomorrow to commence an inquiry into whether grounds exist to impeach him and remove him from office," Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said in a statement Monday.
The women Kent abused told Vinson that they came to work scared Kent might find them, and even neglected to answer courthouse phones to avoid him.
Cathy McBroom, Kent's former case manager, said he "bragged" about his ability to intimidate people. "He told me everyone was afraid of him."
McBroom's complaint began the case, which expanded when allegations from the judge's secretary Donna Wilkerson were added.
McBroom said making the complaint had been "incredibly stressful" and led to the breakup of her marriage and the loss of her home. She said it forced her to give up what she considered her dream job and put her entire life under a public and legal microscope.
"One would think I was the criminal," said McBroom, 50.
Wilkerson told of seven years of abuse by Kent and said he tried to molest her on her fifth day on the job. Responding to defense allegations that she had been a willing partner in a romantic affair, she said, "Being molested and groped by a drunken giant is not my idea of an affair."
Kent, speaking softly as he stood before Vinson, described himself as "completely broken" and "in some ways a better person for that."
Kent pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in February as jury selection was about to begin for his trial on the obstruction charge and five sex-crime charges. Conviction on the most serious of those charges could have sent him to prison for life. The five other charges were dismissed Monday.
As part of the plea agreement, Kent admitted the sexual contact was against the women's will.
Kent's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said the judge had recently been hospitalized for stress-related illnesses and described the judge as an alcoholic.
Kent said he had the "benefit of 26 months of absolute sobriety."
"I've come to see the world as the flawed, selfish, indulgent person I have been," he said.
DeGuerin has said the judge was retiring due to a disability — which is the only way a judge Kent's age could leave the bench and keep his $169,300-a-year salary. Retired federal judges collect their full salaries for the remainder of their lives; judges who resign get nothing.
A council of judges from the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit investigated Kent and suspended him in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him. McBroom had accused Kent of harassing and sexually abusing 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 panel transferred him from Galveston, where he'd worked since his 1990 appointment, to Houston, 50 miles northwest. After a Justice Department investigation, he was indicted in August; additional charges stemming from Wilkerson's claims were filed against him in January.