Judge quizzed about relationship with murder trial witness
Livonia — Judge Theresa Brennan said Monday that officials in the Livingston County Prosecutor's Office were aware of her close "social" relationship with a Michigan State Police sergeant who was a key witness in a double-murder case she presided over six years ago.
"The prosecutors knew I was friends with (MSP Detective Lt. Sean Furlong)," Brennan testified during judicial misconduct proceedings on a complaint against her. "I didn't think I had to disclose details about friendships ... friends who go before me."
Brennan, a judge in 53rd District Court in Brighton, made the comments during the first day of an anticipated two-week long hearing before the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission.
The judicial misconduct hearing by the commission is being held in 16th District Court in Livonia and presided over by retired Wayne County Circuit Court Judge William Giovan, the master hired by the commission for Brennan's proceedings. The hearings are being held on a formal complaint by the Michigan Judicial Commission.
Last week, three state lawmakers introduced articles of impeachment against Brennan.
Brennan is accused of judicial misconduct involving a double-case murder case she heard in January 2013. The judge is accused of having an affair with Furlong, who was a key witness in the murder trial of Jerome Kowalski.
Kowalski was convicted of killing his brother, Richard, and sister-in-law, Brenda. The couple were found shot to death in their Osceola Township home in May 2008.
Brennan testified about her close friendship with Furlong and that he was a visitor at the family's cottage and that her husband, upon her recommendation, gave Furlong tickets to a University of Michigan football game, which the MSP investigator attended with his son.
Brennan said defense attorney Walter Piszczatowski asked about her close relationship with Furlong even though she figured he knew about it and that she believes Piszczatowski was concerned about whether the friendship between she and Furlong was sexual.
"I had to disclose that we did not have a sexual relationship," Brennan said Monday.
Piszczatowski made a motion to disqualify Brennan from hearing the Kowalski case just before trial Jan. 4, 2013, citing a concern about the "appearance of impropriety" with Brennan continuing to preside over the case.
Jared Kowalski, the son of Jerome Kowalski, was among those in the courtroom Monday observing the proceedings.
Kowalski and his family have been trying to get his father's conviction reversed, saying his confession to Furlong was "false" and that the prosecutor, Brennan and Furlong sided against his father. Monday's hearing proves that, Jared Kowalski said.
"It shows the impropriety that she had and she lied on her depositions," he said. "She doesn't sound like a judge, just listening to her. She doesn't sound like someone of authority that takes responsibility for her own actions."
Lynn Helland, the executive director of the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, grilled Brennan about a "multitude" of personal phone calls to Furlong and some calls the judge made to the Furlong during the trial, including the period between when a verdict came in for Kowalski and his sentencing.
"Why would you call him if you were in the middle of the trial?," Helland asked Brennan.
Brennan answered: "I was just bored. I wanted to talk to him."
Helland asked Brennan about texting Furlong during the trial; the judge said, "It would surprise me if I texted him during the trial."
Brennan admitted Monday that she never told any of the other parties in the case that she was having personal phone calls with Furlong during the trial.
During his opening statements, Helland told Giovan, "There are lots of acts of misconduct charged in the case."
Helland said the complaints against Brennan include making false statements, abusing her power as a judge and engaging in conflicts of interest in her role as a jurist.
Helland argued that Brennan had personal relationships with parties or individuals who came before her as a judge and refused to disclose that information to the opposing side in a case.
Brennan, argued Helland, abused her power and assigned her staff to do personal tasks for her that included setting a manicure appointment and asking them how to delete material from her cell phone a few days after she was told by a fellow judge that her husband, Don Root, had filed from divorce from her.
Brennan said her staff members volunteered or were paid to do the personal errands for her because they knew she was "not doing well" and "they knew I was not staying on top of my bills."
The judge said staff members "told me I was going to ruin my credit and I didn't care." She said she told them, "Well, you all pay (the bills) and I'll pay you to pay them."
Brennan was asked why she delayed disqualifying herself from hearing her own divorce after Root filed it Dec. 6, 2016. The judge said she didn't file the paperwork to recuse herself promptly because she was a "basket case" but admitted to being "stupid" for not taking care of it right away.
"You knew you couldn't handle your own divorce?" Helland said. Brennan replied, "Yes."
Brennan's attorney Dennis Kolenda said the judicial complaint against his client stems from the fact that she is a Democrat and was appointed to the bench in 2006 by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Kolenda said Brennan came into a court culture that was relaxed and exhibited an air of "the good old boys network" and that resentment against the judge "bubbled up" because she shook up the court.
"How many transgressions of Judge Brennan were really transgressions?" he asked.
Kolenda said the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission is "relying on things that were said or (done) in the context of her divorce,'' which he called "emotionally wrenching."
Brennan, said Kolenda, did socialize with attorneys who came before her and that it is not unusual in smaller district courts.
"Some judges go golfing with others or allow their Godchildren who are lawyers to appear before them," he said.
Kolenda said if judges in smaller communities were disqualified on that basis, "you'd have visiting judges all the time."
The proceedings continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday in 16th District Court.