A Havre High School and Montana State University-Northern graduate who was elected to a judgeship in Billings in 2018 is in the midst of an ethics dispute being reviewed by the Montana Supreme Court.
Yellowstone County District Judge Ashley Harada agreed to a public censure by the Supreme Court and to not harass or intimidate any of the complainants who filed ethics charges against her. Those were the remedies proposed by the Judicial Standards Commission, whose recommendations often are accepted by the high court as presented.
But the people who filed the complaint are dissatisfied with the commission, a nonpartisan group headed by retired District Court Judge Ed McLean that investigates ethical matters. They are asking the Supreme Court to add stricter disciplinary measures, including suspension from the bench.
The accusations against Harada were filed by Yellowstone County District Court Judge Gregory Todd, attorneys Elizabeth Halverson and Jacquelyn Hughes, and retired U.S. District Court law clerk Karen Jarussi.
Todd said in paperwork filed with the Supreme Court that he learned of the proposed disciplinary action while reading the Billings Gazette over breakfast.
“While reading the article I became nauseated and irate,” he wrote. “Those reactions have not subsided. A public censure alone is woefully inappropriate in this case.”
Public censure involves the person appearing before the full Supreme Court and listening to a formal dressing-down from the chief justice.
Harada was the subject of a profile in The Havre Herald when she ran in 2018.
Several ethical issues surrounding Harada’s conduct during the campaign were investigated:
- Candidates for judicial office in Montana are to remain strictly nonpartisan, yet on her Facebook page Harada had public endorsements by the Yellowstone County Republican Committee; state House candidate Denise Johnson, a Republican; and Libertarian U.S. House candidate Elinor Swanson. Harada said access to her Facebook account was set to private, but while American Bar Association rules allow for private Facebook settings, Montana Bar Association regulations do not.
- Harada said in her campaign material that she previously had donated only to the campaigns of conservative candidates, but records show a $75 contribution to Democratic House candidate John Heenan was made by her law firm. She initially said that her husband and partner made the donation, but later admitted she did.
- Judicial candidates are not supposed to endorse others for partisan offices, but Harada had endorsed Republican candidates for Yellowstone County commissioner and a county attorney candidate for Musselshell and Golden Valley counties.
- Judicial candidates are barred from making false and misleading statements, but the complainants said Harada credited herself with being involved in 80 jury trials when that wasn’t true.
- The complaining parties claimed Harada lied about a person seeking admission to the University of Montana law school in a personal vendetta, leading to the rejection of the application. The person is attending law school out of state.
- The complainants said Harada misled the commission over allegations that she did not properly report the status of a live-in nanny to the Internal Revenue Service.
Todd wrote that Harada’s attorney, retired District Court Judge Russell Fagg, “quibbles, misstates, engages in revisionist history, and qualifies her responsibility” in his filings.
He also rejected Harada’s argument that the Facebook settings were private.
“Such an excuse is unbelievable as many, including the Gazette, were able to view Harada’s Facebook postings throughout the campaign of 2018,” Todd said.
He said some friends had asked him “how Harada could escape with only a slap on the wrist when now-retired Judge G. Todd Baugh was suspended for 31 days for his indiscretion.”
In 2014, Baugh was reprimanded and suspended for 31 days after a nationwide uproar ensued when he sentenced a Billings high school teacher to 30 days in jail for raping a 14-year-old student. During sentencing, Baugh said the girl appeared to be “older than her chronological age” and that she was partially responsible for what happened.
Women’s groups, headed by the Montana Organization for Women, were enraged by Baugh’s actions. Baugh later decided against running for re-election and retired at the end of 2014.
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Write to John Kelleher at firstname.lastname@example.org