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Monday, February 27, 2006

News: Judge Bamberger Resigns

Updated with more detailed story from today's Courier-Journal by Andrew Wolfson:

Kentucky judge resigns after public reprimand
Misconduct alleged in diet-drug case

Northern Kentucky judge has resigned rather than face removal for multiple counts of alleged misconduct in a $200 million settlement involving the diet drug fen-phen.

Senior Judge Joseph F. Bamberger was publicly reprimanded yesterday by the state's Judicial Conduct Commission, which said his actions "shock the conscience." The panel said Bamberger would have been removed if the multiple counts of misconduct had been proved against him.

The commission said Bamberger approved attorney fees totaling at least $86 million and as much as $104 million in the 2001 settlement -- while plaintiffs injured by the popular diet-drug combination collected a total of about $74 million.

The fees included more than $2 million approved for a close friend of Bamberger's, trial consultant Mark Modlin, according to the commission, which held that the judge violated the Code of Judicial Conduct by allowing his relationship with Modlin and the attorneys to impair his objectivity.

Bamberger also allowed $20 million from the $200 million settlement to be put into a charitable fund, and then became a paid director of the fund, receiving $5,000 a month plus a $350 monthly expense allowance.

In a new lawsuit, about 200 of the 431 plaintiffs in the settlement have demanded that their attorneys -- Melbourne Mills Jr., William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham of Kentucky and Stan Chesley of Cincinnati -- surrender excess fees.

That suit, pending in Boone Circuit Court, notes that "astonishingly, more than one-half of the total settlement funds" ended up in the lawyers' hands.

* * *

Bamberger retired in 2003 from Boone Circuit Court after 22 years on the bench but has served since as a substitute judge. He did not return calls left at his home. Modlin also did not return calls left on his cell phone and at his office.

* * *

Yesterday's public reprimand of Bamberger was the most severe sanction the commission could take against him because he resigned.

The agency noted that Bamberger didn't require the attorneys or Modlin to prepare a written summary of how the settlement money was to be disbursed or how they were to be paid.

The panel also said the lawyers told the judge that their fees and expenses were about 49 percent of the settlement -- when they were in fact far more -- and didn't disclose they had contracts with the plaintiffs that called for them to collect no more than one-third of the settlement.

The commission said Bamberger appointed Modlin as one of the directors of the Kentucky Fund for Healthy Living, the charitable fund that received $20 million from the settlement, and in that capacity he collected a $6,500 monthly stipend and a $1,000 monthly expense allowance.

Each of the three Kentucky lawyers got $5,000 a month pay and $350 in monthly expenses.

Bamberger himself collected about $45,000 until he resigned from the board and returned the money when questions were raised last year in the plaintiffs' lawsuit against their attorneys.

* * *

The judge's failure to disqualify himself due to his close friendship and other connections with Modlin, the blanket and unrestricted orders approving the distribution of funds, the creation of the charitable fund and the appointment of the friend and attorneys as paid directors, and Judge Bamberger's acceptance of their invitation to a position of profit, are inexcusable, the commission said.

"The actions of Judge Bamberger shock the conscience of the commission."

* * *

From WAVE3, we find the following story which is an interesting and disturbing backdrop on the recent concerns over campaign finances and judicial recusals.

(FRANKFORT, Ky.) -- A northern Kentucky judge has resigned rather than face removal for allegedly profiting from a $200 million settlement in a lawsuit involving the diet drug fen-phen.

Judge Joseph F. Bamberger, a senior status special judge, was publicly reprimanded Monday by the Judicial Conduct Commission, which said his actions "shock the conscience."

In a letter of reprimand, the commission said the judge gave attorneys, including one of his personal friends, somewhere between $86 million and $104 million from the settlement while 431 people injured by the diet drug split about $74 million.

In addition, Bamberger allowed more than $20 million from the settlement to be put into a charitable fund administered by The Kentucky Fund for Healthy Living. The judge became a paid director of the charitable fund, receiving $5,000 a month, plus a $350 monthly expense allowance.


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