Courtroom gavel. (Getty Images)
An executive assistant in the Orleans Criminal District Court said she was sitting at her desk talking to the state office that handles employee health care benefits over the phone, when she felt someone else’s finger creep up her side and start touching the middle of her chest. She jumped, looked up and saw then-Judge Byron C. Williams running out of the room.
Moments later, while she was still on the phone with the same state office, the woman said she felt a hand cup her breast and start rubbing upwards. Once again, she was startled, looked up and saw Williams running out of the room for a second time, according to lawsuits the woman filed in state and federal court.
The alleged misconduct took place in July of 2017, the woman said. Williams, who resigned last year, has denied it occurred at all.
But in July of 2020, the state of Louisiana agreed to pay the woman $52,500 in order to avoid a courtroom battle over Williams’ behavior and, more broadly, whether the Orleans Criminal District Court did enough to address his alleged behavior.
In exchange for the money, the woman dropped her lawsuits against the state, Orleans court and Williams personally. She also forfeited the right to bring any other legal action on the matter in the future. Neither Williams nor the Orleans court admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the legal settlement with her.
Louisiana taxpayers footed the entire bill for the $52,500 payment. Williams did not cover any of the settlement expenses.
“My client didn’t pay a dime,” said Ernest Jones, Williams’ attorney, in an interview Wednesday. “And he didn’t have control over whether the state wanted to pay anything.”
The woman and her attorney declined to comment on the settlement payment. The Illuminator is not identifying the woman by name because she is a potential victim of sexual misconduct.
Orleans Criminal District Court judicial administrator, Robert Kazik, also did not return phone calls and an email from a reporter this week regarding the settlement.
Allegations of sexual misconduct against Williams are not new. Several news outlets reported Williams had been temporarily removed from the bench because of the accusations of groping and other inappropriate behavior.
The state Judiciary Commission launched an investigation into his conduct in 2018 and Williams had been suspended for 18 months when he resigned from the Orleans criminal court in February 2020, according to The Times-Picayune.
But the settlement Louisiana paid out to Williams’ victim has been kept secret for nine months. The settlement documents were obtained through a public records request made by Louisiana Illuminator earlier this month.
This financial settlement is the most expensive one related to sexual misconduct that the state Office of Risk Management — which provides insurance and liability coverage for several state entities and courts — paid out in 2020, according to documents from Louisiana’s Division of Administration.
Still, the accusations and state-funded settlement haven’t stopped Williams from also collecting state retirement benefits based on his time as a judge. Williams receives a little over $5,300 monthly in state retirement benefits, according to information provided by Louisiana State Employees Retirement System Thursday.
The retirement payment is the result of Williams working for the state for more than 13 years — five years as a judge, four years in the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office and another four years in public education. Directly before joining the bench, Williams had served as special counsel to the president of Southern University.
In Louisiana, most judges elected after 2011 can only access judicial retirement benefits if they serve on the bench for at least five years. Williams, elected in 2014, barely made that cut off.
He had served just 5.2 years when he resigned in early 2020, according to the retirement system. That tenure included his final 18 months on suspension, when he could not preside over court because of the sexual misconduct allegations made against him.
If the suspension period had been backed out of his service, Williams might not have been able to access judicial retirement benefits because he would have fallen short of five years of service — and his monthly retirement stipend might have been less.
Williams also continued to receive his $152,000 annual salary while on his 18-month suspension, according to The Times-Picayune.
The 2017 alleged groping wasn’t the only allegation of sexual misconduct made against Williams. The woman who brought the lawsuits said Williams’ behavior toward her escalated over a few years.
In her lawsuits, the woman said Williams had slapped her buttocks when she was leaving his judicial campaign office in 2014, before he was even elected to the judgeship. At the time, she said she made clear that his conduct wasn’t welcome, by telling him “no” and waving her finger in his face after he touched her, according to her lawsuit. In his own legal documents, Williams said the touching couldn’t have occurred because he didn’t know the woman until he became a judge and started working in the courthouse around her.
Yet in 2015, after Williams had taken office, the woman said the judge also told her he “started to tap that ass” — referring to having sex with her — while the two were at the courthouse. This comment would have been made two years prior to the alleged groping.
The woman, through her lawsuit, also said she wasn’t the only employee at Orleans Parish District Criminal Court to complain about Williams’ behavior. She said at least one other employee had filed a complaint against the judge before he allegedly groped her, and the court did nothing to address his behavior.
Her lawsuit also references additional “inappropriate incidents” involving Williams that happened prior to her harassment and groping which should have caused “OPCDC to investigate and/or remove Judge Williams.” She said the court took no action.
There was at least one troubling report about Williams close to a year after the woman’s alleged groping.
In May of 2018, Public Defender Derwyn Bunton wrote a letter to the chief justice of the court saying Williams had grabbed a woman attorney who works for Bunton’s office during drug court. After Williams grabbed her, the judge then began to tell the audience gathered that the public defender was attractive and a “good size.” He then told one of the people enrolled in drug court that she should strive to be the same size as the public defender he had grabbed, according to WDSU-TV in New Orleans.
Bunton said he was considering seeking “additional action” against Williams at the time, but it’s not clear what that was. The Orleans Public Defender Office declined to comment for this story.
It is looking less likely that Williams will face any repercussions as a result of the allegations made against him.
The state Judiciary Commission dropped its inquiry into Williams’ alleged behavior when he resigned in 2020, the Louisiana State Supreme Court confirmed this week. The commission is not allowed to investigate people who no longer serve on the bench, said Trina Vincent, spokeswoman for the court.
Williams had actually worked for the Judiciary Commission himself in 2008 and 2009, overseeing misconduct complaints about other lawyers and judges.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel at the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board could still investigate Williams though, Vincent said. That office can recommend discipline — including disbarment — of former judges to the state Supreme Court, which has the power to hand down such punishments.
Vincent didn’t answer a question sent through email Thursday about whether such a recommendation had been made to the Supreme Court regarding Williams, but a search of the disciplinary board’s attorney database shows his law license is still in good standing.
The financial settlement between the state, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, Williams and one of his accusers likely stayed a secret for several months because the agreement prohibits the people involved from discussing it.
“The parties will not make public or otherwise display or discuss with anyone, in any manner, the terms or contents of this Agreement, with the sole exceptions of their attorneys, immediate family, health care providers, and their accountant or tax advisor, on the explicit condition that they are also bound by this confidentiality provision,” reads one portion of the legal agreement.
“The parties agree that, if asked about any of the alleged Actions, they will say that ‘The matter has been resolved and it is over,’ or something similar, and will not publicize the specific terms or the amount to either the public or in social media or to any employee or former employee of any of the Released Parties,” reads another provision.
“I think you know we can’t comment,” replied Larry Demmons, the attorney who represented the woman, when asked about the settlement Wednesday.
In general, sexual misconduct complaints don’t appear to be common in Louisiana’s court systems. There was just one complaint about sexual misconduct from employees across the state Supreme Court, five court of appeals and 43 district courts in 2020, according to a public report released earlier this year.
Experts warn that having such few complaints about sexual misconduct in the workplace is often a red flag that inappropriate behavior isn’t being properly addressed. It’s unlikely misconduct isn’t taking place among hundreds of employees in dozens of courthouses across the state. In such situations, experts typically believe a low number of complaints means that people are hesitant to come forward with such problems.
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