Inkster District Court Judge Sylvia James is accused of embezzling money from a court fund

(WXYZ) - The state's top disciplinary board is accusing a local judge of serious wrongdoing, including possible embezzlement of tens of thousands of dollars. 7 Action News Investigator Bill Proctor broke the story that led to the suspension of Inkster's 22nd District Court Judge Sylvia James.

7 Action News story timeline :

In February 2011, Action News was first to report concerns over how James used court funds, and discrepancies in how she kept records of those funds.

In March 2011, after our report, the Michigan Supreme Court conducted an audit of her court and found 33 items of concern.

In April 2011, James was suspended.

And today, October 27, 2011, the Judicial Tenure Commission (JTC) has issued a 51-page complaint that says Judge James, who has served on the bench 22 years, used the Community Service Program (CSP) fund for personal expenses and other costs not related to court business. The CSP is funded through fees and costs imposed on non-violent offenders. Half of the money collected is supposed to be applied to paying crime victims' restitution. The other half is to be paid to the City of Inkster for all court-related costs.

But the JTC complaint says starting in 2006 James created a separate checking account for the CSP fund "…and became the sole decision-making authority of how the funds were to be appropriated."

The complaint also says that from 2006 and 2011 James made "…illegal and/or improper disbursements of the CSP funds, contrary to the Code of Judicial Conduct…Michigan court rules, and Michigan Supreme Court administrative orders."

In 2008, Judge James appointed her niece, Nicole James, as co-director of the CSP fund, along with another employee Audray Hicks. Both were paid "stipends" of $15,000 each in addition to their salaries; it is not clear if that "stipend" came from the CSP fund," according to the JTC complaint. Though her niece resigned Nov. 30, 2010, James continued to pay a "stipend" to her niece from January through March 2011.

Judge James also showed up to work late, took twice as many days off than she reported and took long lunches, the complaint says.

The JTC also fund James's conduct to be in violation of serveral laws, including embezzlement and obtaining money under false pretenses. It also says that James violated the anti-nepotism rule of the State Supreme Court when she hired her niece, who got 19 raises ranging from two percent to 22 percent. 

  JTC Complaint also accuses James of using the CSP fund to: 

*Contribute $2,500 to the Inkster Police Auxilary in 2007 and $1000 to the group in 2008.

*Pay $100 for a banner with her name "prominently" displayed in the 2009 Memorial Day parade.

*Buy cheerleader uniforms for Inkster High School, her alma mater.

*Pay for items related to her sorority Delta Sigma Theta.

*Pay her friend and attorney Sharon McPhail more than $55,000 from June 2009 through February 2011. McPhail is a former Detroit City Council member. James did not require a retainer agreement from McPhail, documentation of the services she provided or an hourly rate.

*Authorize payments over $13,000 for trips for herself and staff to attend drug court conferences in California and Boston though the Inkster court has no drug court program.

*Reimbursed herself $349.40 for flights for the drug court conferences, when "...her actual out-of-pocket cost was only $7.50..."

*Authorize over $10,000 from the CSP account for various lawn equipment and maintenance expenses though she did not have supporting documentation for these expenditures.

Michigan Supreme Court will appoint a special master to preside over this JTC complaint. The special master typically is a retired judge, who will hear evidence from the JTC and James. It is similar to a court trial and is open to the public.

When it concludes, the special master will decide if the law or ethics rules were violated and will recommend disciplinary action, which can be anything from a public reprimand to removal from the bench. The JTC will make a recommendation based on the special master's findings.

Judge James would then have 28 days to dispute the findings or accept the recommended disciplinary action. If James does dispute it, the Michigan Supreme Court would hear oral arguments and then issue a final decision.

View the formal complaint in its entirety here.

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