Janice Morse Enquirer staff writer
LEBANON - By settling federal sexual-harassment lawsuits against an ex-Warren County judge, five current and former Warren County employees can move ahead without publicly dredging up distasteful details in a trial, a lawyer in the case says. "It concludes a bad chapter in their lives, which, through no fault of their own, was brought upon them by a judge that just went off the deep end," said attorney Charlie Rittgers. He represented four of the 10 people who had filed federal suits over the conduct of Dallas Powers, 72.
The longtime county judge retired late last year after being convicted of public indecency in his extramarital courthouse affair with Libbie Gerondale Sexton, a court employee about half his age. Five employees, including Rittgers' four clients, settled Tuesday. "It saves our clients the ugliness of exposing this dirty segment of their employment," Rittgers said. County commissioners agreed to sign papers settling the five complaints. Just one case, filed by former county Court Clerk Terry Smith, remains unresolved following two years of controversy, said Bruce McGary, an assistant prosecutor who represents the commissioners. All but Smith dismissed claims against county commissioners; the five settlements signed Tuesday relate only to claims against Powers, McGary said. None of the settlement money is coming from taxpayer dollars except for a $2,500 deductible that the county would have had to pay regardless of the suits' outcome, McGary said. Commissioners on Tuesday agreed on payments of $165,000 to Mary Velde, a probation officer; $110,000 to Donna Burgess Moore, who had been a bailiff; and $40,000 each to now-retired Court Clerk Sherry Urton, ex-probation officer Dick Kilburn and Sheriff's Deputy Kevin White. Earlier, four other court employees who sued reached settlements: Judith Crutchfield was to be paid $32,500; Melissa Moubray and Linda Steinbrugge, $25,000 each; and Diane Wiederhold, $15,000. The money is being paid by insurance companies that cover the county and Powers. In addition, Powers is paying $25,000 toward the settlements from his own pocket, McGary said. Last year, state and county officials said state rules forced them to continue paying Powers at least $50,000 in salary while he was voluntarily absent from the bench as he faced investigation and prosecution.
Commissioner Dave Young said the settlement "helps draw a conclusion to a very sad chapter in Warren County history." However, Young questioned whether some of the amounts to be paid are justified. "There was a lot of wrongdoing that went on in this case by an elected official and I think some people took advantage of that for monetary gain," he said. "I was not convinced how some of these people were harmed by working in this office. But I'm glad this chapter is closed." Rittgers said monetary amounts aside, the settlements represent relief for his clients. "While they were under his control - he could hire them and fire them - they had to remain silent. Now they've been vindicated," Rittgers said. "They want to get on with their lives without any further publicity. ... They just want to do what they did before the judge made their lives miserable - and now they can do it. It's over."
Staff writer Jessica Brown contributed.
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