July 8, 2014 at 4:48 pm

Two Novi judges accused of abusing their power fight accusations

Novi 52-1 District Judge Dennis Powers (The Detroit News)

Novi Two veteran Novi 52-1 District judges facing allegations that they have abused their power are fighting back.

Judge Dennis Powers, a former Oakland County commissioner who has been on the bench for 16 years, is currently the subject of a judicial tenure commission complaint over thousands of dollars in mileage reimbursement he filed while attending real estate classes, parties and golf outings. Powers is also accused of excessive tardiness and absences from the bench and misuse of county property.

"We've prepared an extensive answer to a lengthy list of allegations because we don't believe the judge has done anything wrong," said Powers' attorney, Christian E. Hildebrandt.

The Judicial Tenure Commission filed a formal complaint against Powers last month, over allegations occurring since 2006. An audit by the State Court Administrators Office found Powers, who is paid $138,272 annually, submitted more than $3,877 in mileage reimbursement from the county for travel that was determined not work-related.

Hildebrandt noted Powers, who is not seeking reelection, has paid back the funds in question, which span several years and different interpretations of mileage policies. In his response, Powers said he was told by the SCAO and chief Oakland County District Judge Julie Nicholson, that "if he paid the disputed amount it would end the matter."

In his 108-page response, Powers has told the State Supreme Court he is unable to address all charges against him because someone broke into his judicial chambers and stole years of mileage reimbursement forms and other records dating back to when he was a commissioner.

Powers claims among items stolen were a personal check register, letters from litigants, medical records for his son, a disabled military veteran, and even a framed course completion certificate from a legal economics class off a wall.

Powers, a licensed real estate broker, claims other payments in dispute involved appropriate "civic" activities, including serving on the late Ernie Harwell's honor guard at his Comerica Park farewell; taking real estate classes to keep up with property law; and attending credit union meetings to stay abreast of financial matters that might come before the bench.

Among other responses in his lengthy response:

■Allegations of improper cellphone and computer laptop use were described as "red herrings" because Powers insists he never violated any county policies and personal use is acceptable.

■Disputed mileage involved meetings that promote patriotism and community involvement, including several with an Irish-American lawyers group planning a St. Patrick's Day Celebration.

■Paid time off and mileage submitted for several golf outings because they served "civic" purposes or were charitable events, including a fundraiser for "Meals On Wheels."

■Time off the bench not charged as vacation days and mileage to attend more than 41 "conferences" some out of state.

■Time off the bench to attend real estate licensure and credit union meetings described as "invaluable" education opportunities for the jurist

■Time off the bench and submitted mileage for a re-election fundraiser for several circuit judges and the swearing-in of a Royal Oak district judge.

The Michigan Supreme Court will appoint a master, the equivalent of a judge, to hear allegations in a trial-type setting, after which recommendations will be made on what action, if any, to take against Powers.

Meanwhile, in a separate matter out of the same district court, Judge Brian MacKenzie is in a fight with Prosecutor Jessica Cooper over dismissing misdemeanor domestic violence cases without her office's input.

Cooper wants MacKenzie found in contempt of Oakland Circuit Judge Colleen O'Brien's order in February requiring notification of any sentences in domestic violence cases being set aside or taken under advisement. Cooper's office is alleging MacKenzie has withheld 33 additional cases uncovered by her staff. O'Brien ruled this week Cooper must provide the 33 cases to MacKenzie so he can respond to them.

"We are interested in seeing these new cases they're talking about," said MacKenzie's attorney David B. Timmis. "There has been no attempt to hide anything from anyone and we suspect the cases in question have nothing to do with (O'Brien's) prior ruling."

MacKenzie, on the bench for 26 years, is better known for developing award-winning sobriety and veterans treatment programs. He claims allegations against him are politically motivated.

mmartindale@detroitnews.com
(248) 338-0319

Novi 52-1 District Judge Brian MacKenzie (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)