WARREN (WXYZ) - For Warren taxpayers, Judge John Chmura's birthday party may prove to be the most expensive in the city's history.
On November 29 th of last year, about 200 guests gathered at the Century Club in Sterling Heights to celebrate the chief judge's 50 th birthday. His staff organized the surprise which included lawyers, family and friends.
But they didn't come empty handed. Instead, guests had to buy tickets to the bash costing $30 a piece. It was enough to pay for the party and a $1,500 cash gift for the judge; money that would help fund a trip to Las Vegas.
Judge Chmura accepted the cash, which was engulfed in controversy months later when it became widely known.
In Michigan, the judicial canons of ethics limit the gifts that judge's can accept, even if they're not from lawyers who argue in their court. Once the $1,500 became public knowledge, pressure mounted on Chmura to return it.
Eventually, Chmura decided to donate the cash to a non-profit instead, but told a local newspaper: "I still think there was nothing improper about it."
The state's judicial tenure commission wasn't so sure. Earlier this year, they launched an investigation to see if Chmura crossed a line. It prompted the judge to lawyer up and he spared no expense.
Chmura hired the same high-profile law firm chosen by fmr. Justice Diane Hathaway and Judge Wade McCree when they got into trouble. The firm put three lawyers on the case—each at $225 an hour—and they racked up quite a bill. All told, Chmura's defense cost about $8,100.
When city officials submitted the payment to their insurance company, they were surprised to learn it was denied. But instead of paying it himself, Judge Chmura passed it on to taxpayers instead.
His court sent the bill to the city council and, in a meeting in May, they voted 6-1 to approve the payment. But when 7 Action News caught up with some members in August, they seemed unsure about just what they'd voted for.
"I'm not aware of an investigation," said Councilman Robert Boccomino, who voted to pay for Chmura's lawyers during the JTC probe.
Councilwoman Kelly Colegio voted yes, but says council members weren't told what the lawyers were for. She said she would have voted no had she known they were hired to defend Chmura.
Only councilman Scott Stevens voted no.
"That's a personal item, and the taxpayers shouldn't pay for it," Stevens said.
For 2 months, Chmura ignored our phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.
He refused to explain why the expense was appropriate when 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones caught up with him last week.
Chmura has not been served with a complaint by the Judicial Tenure Commission, and he says he won't be. He would not say, however, if he received an admonishment—a lesser form of punishment—by the commission.
Contact 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones at email@example.com or at (248) 827-9466.