Livingston County judge faces more misconduct complaints

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Livingston County District Court Judge Theresa Brennan

The Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission has amended its misconduct complaint against a Livingston County judge, alleging she ordered two employees to work on her re-election campaign and lied to investigators about it.

Judge Theresa Brennan of 53rd District Court directed her research attorney and court secretary to work on her re-election campaign in 2014, according to an amended complaint by the commission.

The judge had attorney Jessica Yakel and secretary Kristi Cox, who are county employees, perform campaign tasks at the courthouse during their work hours, the complaint alleges.

According to the complaint, the campaign work they did included preparing material for events, ordering supplies, buying or picking up supplies from a store or the judge's home, and completing a candidate survey conducted by a local media entity.

Cox worked on Brennan's campaign in 2008, while Cox and Yakel worked on the 2014 campaign, according to the complaint.

The alleged actions are a violation of the Michigan Campaign Finance Act, which prohibits public officials from using government workers or facilities in election campaigns.

Allegations also include the judge seeking to hide the two employees' campaign work by telling them not to use the court's electronic equipment and information services, according to the complaint. Instead, the two workers used laptop computers and the WiFi of a restaurant near the courthouse, the complaint says.

When the commission confronted Brennan with the campaign allegations, she denied they were true, which the commission said was a lie.

Brennan could not be reached for comment about the latest disclosures.

 The amended complaint also accuses Brennan of repeatedly belittling an attorney and his client during a divorce case that stretched from 2014 to 2016.

Her behavior during the case was improper, showing a lack of patience, courtesy or dignity, said the commission in the filing.

The details come on the heels of the commission's original complaint last month that accused Brennan of failing to disclose her relationship with a witness at a trial she presided over in 2009.

The original complaint also charged that she failed to disclose a friendship with an attorney in a case before her, and failed to disclose a close social relationship with a court administrator whose divorce she presided over.

She also had been accused of using staff for personal tasks, and mistreating attorneys who appeared in her court.

In the amended complaint, the mistreatment allegations focused on a divorce case in which attorney Bruce Sage represented the wife.

Sage was repeatedly criticized by Brennan over the course of the trial, according to court transcripts included in the amended complaint.

"If you ask me one more time, sir, about the unvested stock, I will sanction you," she told him during a motion hearing in 2014.

"Mr. Sage, when I say stop, you stop," she told him during an evidentiary hearing in 2015.

"Mr. Sage, I don't know if it's that you're hard of hearing," she said during the same hearing.

Brennan was no easier on Sage's client, who was testifying about her expenses during a review hearing in 2016. 

"I have a blind elderly dog," the woman said. "They (the dog and other pets) are expensive."

"Yeah, well, maybe you need to get rid of them," said the judge.

During a 2015 hearing, Sage asked whether the woman, who had moved to Florida, could participate in the next Michigan hearing by telephone. Brennan said no, saying the court didn't have the capability.

But the court did have the capability, said the commission. Brennan said during the later hearing that there was no need for the woman, who had made the trip, to be there, according to the complaint.

The Michigan Court of Appeals, which heard an appeal of the case, said Brennan showed a pattern of hostility toward Sage, and that the attorney hadn't done anything to warrant it.

The Court of Appeals remanded the case to a different judge, saying it would better serve the appearance of justice.

In the amended complaint, the Judicial Tenure Commission accused Brennan of a litany of unprofessional behavior. Among its 30 criticisms in the filing were perjury, deceit, impropriety, prejudice, irresponsible behavior and misuse of office.

It accused her of allowing social relationships to influence judicial conduct and using the prestige of office to advance personal business interests.