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Incumbent Judge Faces Ethics Probe 

State commission staff allege Kreis engaged in 'willful misconduct,' brought 'disrepute' to office

Less than a month before Election Day, the Commission on Judicial Performance has dropped a proverbial bombshell into the race for a Humboldt County Superior Court judgeship.

On Feb. 7, the commission announced it had filed a notice of formal proceedings against incumbent Judge Gregory Kreis — who is also presently the local court's presiding judge — charging "willful misconduct in office" and behavior that "brings the judicial office into disrepute." The 35-page filing alleges 19 counts that encompass a smattering of alleged misconduct, from discourtesy in court and failing to recuse himself or disclose potential conflicts of interest to lying to cover up a workplace affair to drinking and driving, and using illegal drugs.

Some of the conduct is alleged to have occurred before Gov. Jerry Brown appointed Kreis to the bench in 2017 and some after. And while some of the allegations mirror those included in a lawsuit brought against Kreis and the county by former Deputy Public Defender Rory Kalin, the vast majority are new and unrelated to the suit, portions of which were recently dismissed by a visiting judge, while Kreis settled his portion of the case out of court last month.

The Commission on Judicial Performance's filing does not reflect a finding of guilt, but simply sets the matter for a hearing at a future date, giving Kreis 20 days to formally respond to the notice and the allegations.

Kreis posted a brief statement to social media addressing the matter shortly after it became public Feb. 7.

"I'm grateful that we have a formal process that will consider all the facts and am confident the allegations and outright lies will be dismissed and clear my name — just like the two separate lawsuits that were dismissed on some of these matters last year," Kreis wrote. "It's not surprising that these salacious and false allegations, some of them over a decade old, are being made in a highly public way the same week ballots are out in a campaign for reelection."

Kreis said he would respond to the commission "immediately and appropriately" but would limit further comments on the matter to the formal process. Subsequently reached by the , Kreis similarly declined to comment further on the advice of his attorney.

That process will almost assuredly remain unresolved on Election Day, leaving voters to decide for themselves if or how the allegations impact their votes as Kreis vies for re-election against challenger April Van Dyke. If the commission ultimately finds the allegations are supported by "clear and convincing" evidence, it can take punitive action against Kreis ranging from publicly admonishing or censuring him to removing him from office.

Regardless of the timing or the salacious and serious nature of some of the alleged conduct, the commission's initiating formal proceedings is noteworthy — a step rarely taken by the commission tasked with overseeing the state's more than 1,800 judges. Comprised of 11 members, including two superior court judges, one appellate justice, two attorneys and six citizens variously appointed by the California Supreme Court, the governor, the speaker of the Assembly and the Senate Committee on Rules, one of the commission's primary functions is fielding complaints about sitting judges.

According to its latest annual report, the commission receives more than 1,200 complaints a year and vets each of them. First, commission intake staff conducts an initial review of the allegations and relevant law, which is then presented to the commission, which then votes to open an investigation or close the complaint without one.

Sonya Smith, the commission's assistant director and investigations supervisor, told the that in cases in which an investigation is opened, the investigations are generally conducted by one or two attorneys who interview witnesses, review documents and give the accused judge a chance to respond to the allegations. The attorneys then present their findings to the examiner's office, which then evaluates whether the case merits formal proceedings. The examiner's office then presents its findings to the commission, Smith said, which has the final decision of whether to initiate formal proceedings, drop the matter or seek an informal or private resolution.

Cases that move to the formal proceedings stage, like Kreis', are heard by a panel of three "special masters" — judges selected by the California Supreme Court to preside over the hearing. These special masters prepare a report of the hearing's findings of fact and conclusions of law, and present them to the commission for action. A judge can then appeal the any commission decision to admonish, censure or review them to the Supreme Court for review.

In 2022, the commission processed 1,385 complaints, 1,294 of which were closed after the initial staff review stage. Of the 91 cases that proceeded to an investigation, 60 were closed without discipline, while 29 resulted in discipline and two were closed after the involved judge resigned or retired. Of the discipline imposed in 2022, 25 cases were resolved privately through an admonishment or advisory letter. Of the four cases that resulted in public discipline, one took the form of a censure and three others an admonishment. In 2022, just one case resulted in formal proceedings, according to the report, which notes that over the last decade less than 1 percent of complaints filed with the commission have advanced to that stage.

"It's a pretty infrequent thing," said Smith.

Asked about concerns of the timing of the notice issued in Kreis' case coming so close to the March election, Smith said she doesn't believe the commission takes things like that into account when determining how to move forward with a case.

"In my experience, the commission is assessing the facts right in front of it and just moving forward on those without looking at those kinds of external factors," she said.

The formal allegations filed against Kreis begin with one that's already been public for some years and — to some extent — already vetted and resolved by a court. This is that on May 25, 2019, Kreis attended an event with a host of deputy public defenders in Shasta County at which Kalin alleges Kreis got drunk and belittled him, making fun of his dress and his job performance, and repeatedly calling him "Jewboy," before pushing him into a lake. (Witnesses were reportedly unable to corroborate the allegations or denied them outright.) The second allegation is related to the first, charging that when Kalin later appeared before Kreis in court, Kreis failed to disclose that he'd socialized with Kalin at the event or that he was personal friends with Kalin's boss, Public Defender Luke Brownfield.

This kicks off a theme in the allegations of Kreis allegedly repeatedly failing to disclose personal relationships with former colleagues and friends in cases appearing before him, including instances in which the document alleges Kreis should have recused himself entirely. Additionally, the document alleges Kreis similarly regularly failed to recuse himself in cases that involved the law partner of local attorney Patrik Griego, who was representing Kreis in the Kalin lawsuit and with whom Kreis had collaborated on a case prior to becoming a judge.

And when asked during the investigation about one of these instances of allegedly failing to disclose a personal relationship with a litigant in his courtroom, the commission alleges Kreis' response "gave the false impression" that he'd disqualified himself from hearing her cases during his first two years on the bench. In fact, the document alleges, Kreis heard such cases and failed to disclose the personal relationship more than two dozen times.

Several of the counts allege illegal conduct. Count 15 alleges Kreis "grabbed or slapped [a woman's] buttocks without her consent" after she'd explicitly told him not to touch her while at a friend's home on Nov. 9, 2018. Count 16 alleges Kreis made cocktails for a group of people and then permitted them to bring them into his car, which he drove with one hand as he held his alcoholic drink in the other while leading an Oct. 6, 2019, tour of historic homes in Eureka. Count 18 alleges Kreis "frequently used cocaine" before becoming a judge, relaying one instance when he is alleged to have "used cocaine while driving" in 2015. Another count alleges that while at a party at a friend's house in 2015, Kreis attempted to wake a sleeping woman with his pants pulled down with his "penis out and near her face."

Perhaps the most serious allegation when it comes to workplace conduct is in Count Three, which alleges that Kreis began an "intimate relationship" with the superior court's family law facilitator in 2019. When word of the relationship began to spread throughout the court, the count alleges Kreis complained to the then presiding judge that a specific employee was "spreading false rumors," which led to her firing. Making those "false or misleading statements" was a violation of the code of judicial ethics, the count alleges.

Kreis' supporters — who include a wide swath of local officials across the political spectrum, from Sheriff William Honsal and former District Attorney Paul Gallegos to Supervisor Rex Bohn and retired Supervisor Bonnie Neely — have largely stood by him in the wake of the commission's notice. They have voiced skepticism at the allegations and the timing of their becoming public, and praised his work on the bench, while pointing out these are just allegations and the judge is entitled to due process. Some have also pointed that Kreis underwent extensive vetting by Brown's office prior to his appointment, saying it's unlikely some of the conduct alleged in the commission's filing would not have been uncovered then if true.

According to the Commission on Judicial Performance's documents, Kreis was served with the notice Feb. 2, which means he has until Feb. 20 to file an official answer with the commission. That will likely give Humboldt County voters a first look at Kreis' full response to the allegations.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correctly identify the governor who appointed Kreis and to correct a misspelling of Sonya Smith's name.. The Journal regrets the errors.

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected].

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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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