Indiana’s highest court suspends a judge for 45 days after he ignored warning signs that his friend was engaging in misconduct as trustee and personal representative of an estate in a probate case the judge was presiding over. Matter of Freese (Ind., No. 19S-JD-52, June 4, 2019).
Superior court judge Robert Freese loaned his good friend, Stephan Scott, money to buy a house. Soon after, Judge Freese appointed Mr. Scott as trustee in a case the judge was presiding over. He did not disclose his financial relationship or close friendship with Mr. Scott. When the trustor died, Judge Freese appointed Mr. Scott personal representative of the estate. Mr. Scott failed to file accountings even after Judge Freese granted him extensions. After five years, Mr. Scott resigned as trustee without providing an accounting. Judge Freese ordered him to appear at a hearing in person, but Mr. Scott refused. Eventually, the judge found Mr. Scott had disbursed money from the estate to himself, but he did not refer the findings to a prosecutor. Mr. Scott eventually pleaded guilty to embezzlement.
The Indiana Commission on Judicial Qualifications charged Judge Freese with violating rules of judicial conduct, including rules requiring judges to avoid impropriety and prohibiting judges from allowing social relationships to influence conduct. Judge Freese agreed that his conduct violated the rules.
The Indiana Supreme Court suspends Judge Freese for 45 days. The court finds that the judge’s conduct was “mostly negligent, not willful,” but that the judge’s “misconduct ultimately enabled a massive theft.” According to the court, “friendship clouded the judge’s objectivity through seven years of warning signs— making him unreasonably credulous of, and lenient towards, [Mr.] Scott in the face of growing evidence of serious financial misconduct.”