Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

March 27, 2014

‘Embarrassment to robe’: Former magistrate admonished by Supreme Court commission

PRINCETON — A former Mercer County magistrate who was under investigation for misconduct has been formerly admonished by a Supreme Court commission that called his behavior while serving on the bench “an embarrassment to the robe.”

Richard D. “Rick” Fowler came under scrutiny by the Judicial Investigation Commission (JIC) in late 2013 after sexually explicit Facebook messages with a woman who appeared before him in court were posted on the social networking site. Fowler announced his retirement last month.

The formal JIC admonishment, issued March 14 and obtained by the Daily Telegraph Wednesday, calls Fowler’s conduct “shameful, reprehensible and contemptible.”

Fowler’s “use of his position as a means to satisfy his personal desires was more than foolhardy and humiliating; it was a blatant abuse of power,” the admonishment states.

The JIC reprimand notes that four circumstances of “grave concern” were discovered during the investigation. Two of the incidents involved allegations of sexual harassment, one was a complaint about extrajudicial activity and the fourth involved events with the woman he corresponded with on Facebook, who is referred to as “R.R.” in the admonishment.

The commission document states the investigation supported formal charges be brought against Fowler. However, because he “resigned and openly acknowledged that he will never again seek public office” the commission issued the admonishment “for reasons of judicial economy and the knowledge that the public is protected because [Fowler] is no longer in office.”

The reprimand notes “this dismissal is without prejudice and the JIC reserves the right to reopen them should [Fowler] renege on his decision never again to seek public office at any time and in any state.”

In a section titled “The R.R. Matter,” the document details the relationship between R.R. and Fowler, and specific incidents when she and her boyfriend appeared before him in court.

In one instance, R.R.’s boyfriend appeared before Fowler on multiple misdemeanor counts including a domestic violence charge in which R.R. was the alleged victim.

Fowler “handled the boyfriend’s initial arraignment and set bond at $5,000,” however R.R. told him she could not afford to post the bond, the admonishment states.

“At one point during the arraignment she said [Fowler] took her to his office and ... suggested that she agree to ‘let (her boyfriend) sit in jail for ten days,’ ’’ the document continues. “She did not agree. She also said that at some point during the conversation, [Fowler] ‘patted her on the buttocks.’ The boyfriend confirmed to a JIC investigator that R.R. and [Fowler] went back to [Fowler’s] office. He said when they came out, [Fowler] ‘grabbed her [buttocks] right in front of me.”  

R.R. and the boyfriend said Fowler then “ripped up the old bond paperwork” and reduced the bond to $1,000 surety with a 10 percent cash option, according to the admonishment.

Other incidents detailed in the reprimand include Fowler granting domestic violence petitions filed by R.R. against her boyfriend, and dismissing a domestic assault charge against her.

The admonishment also notes Fowler and R.R. communicated by Facebook and sent multiple messages to one another that “were clearly sexually suggestive.” In a written response to the court complaint, Fowler called the Facebook messaging “totally absurd,” saying he and R.R. “had acted crazy on Facebook privately a few times joking and making fun of each other.”

The Daily Telegraph obtained screenshots of the message thread when initially reporting the investigation into Fowler’s conduct. The messages contained graphic sexual banter between Fowler and the woman, and what appeared to be discussion between the two of meeting for a sexual tryst. The latter part of the message thread contained a post that read, “This has to be private. If anyone knew... it would keep me frim [sic] being able to help you out with other things in the future. ok? [sic]”

Fowler told the JIC investigator that “he did not really expect any sexual favors from R.R.,” according to the reprimand. “[Fowler] stated, ‘Do I say crazy things to girls? Yeah I do.’ ’’

The commission found probable cause that Fowler violated multiple canons and the code of judicial conduct.

Fowler “exploited his position and attempted to use his judicial office to create inappropriate intimacy with R.R. and others,” the admonishment states. “Not only was his conduct offensive and an embarrassment to the robe, it was threatening to women who encountered [him] in his judicial position.”

The admonishment concludes with a warning to Fowler “that if he attempts to run for public office again the commission will reopen the remaining allegations that were dismissed without prejudice for further consideration.”

Fowler submitted a formal letter of retirement on Feb. 14. However, days before that he announced his attention to leave the bench in a Facebook post and a note taped to his office door. The Facebook post read: “To clarify the rumors.....I am going to retire 2-28-14.....not resign. I will enjoy both of my retirement’s [sic].....Air Force and Magistrate. I will miss all of the wonderful people I have met.....but its [sic] time to move closer to my parents ...”

The JIC admonishment refers to Fowler’s departure as a “resignation.”

In earlier interviews with the Daily Telegraph, Fowler maintained the scandal was stirred up by a political rival who wanted his job. Fowler had served as a magistrate in Mercer County since 2004.

Two weeks after Fowler’s formal letter was received, former magistrate Charles Poe was sworn in to replace him.

— Contact Perry at sperry@bdtonline.com

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