A juvenile and domestic relations judge in southwest Virginia was removed from the bench Monday by the Virginia Supreme Court, effective immediately, after he admitted contacting two key witnesses in a pending federal corruption case against his wife.
Kurt J. Pomrenke, 64, was elected to the bench in 2013 to oversee juvenile and domestic court cases in Washington and Smyth counties and Bristol City along the Virginia-Tennessee border. He is only the second Virginia judge in the last 23 years to be removed by the state Supreme Court, court records show, with the other being a juvenile and domestic judge who resolved some visitation issues with a coin flip.
Pomrenke has also been found guilty of contempt of court by a federal judge in Bristol in connection with his wife’s case and is scheduled to be sentenced in that matter on Thursday. His wife, Stacey Pomrenke, the former chief financial officer of Bristol Virginia Utilities, is currently in prison serving a 34-month sentence on multiple charges of conspiracy, extortion and wire fraud as well as contempt of court, in part for her husband’s contact with potential witnesses in the case.
Kurt Pomrenke, in a hearing before the state Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission, which handles complaints against judges, conceded that his actions were wrong and violated the state Canons of Judicial Conduct. The canons require judges to “uphold the integrity and independence of the judiciary” and to “avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the judge’s activities.” Pomrenke suggested he only be censured, but the Supreme Court felt his actions were “particularly damaging to the integrity of the judicial process and the confidence of the citizens of the Commonwealth that a sitting judge in the Commonwealth would attempt to improperly influence two potential witnesses in his wife’s federal criminal trial.”
Pomrenke did not respond to a request for comment. His lawyer, John E. Lichtenstein, said in a statement that Pomrenke was “disappointed but respects the action of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
“He will assess his position, but his focus now is on the needs of his family,”Lichtenstein said in the statement. “He is, and will always be, deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in the 28th Judicial District.”
Pomrenke’s downfall began with the 2015 indictment of his wife on 15 corruption-related counts. She had been the chief financial officer of the city’s electric, water and sewer utility since 2003, and prosecutors alleged she pressured BVU’s vendors for tickets to ballgames and auto races, money to pay for BVU employee parties, awarded bonuses to BVU employees without reporting them for tax purposes, and other executive chicanery. Her husband, a judge and former BVU board member, was granted access to pre-trial discovery in the case over the government’s objection.
Three weeks after his wife’s indictment, Pomrenke sent a handwritten note to her boss, the BVU chief executive officer Donald L. Bowman, with his business card included in a “Thank You” envelope. “I just wanted to sincerely thank you for your kindness and understanding support for Stacey during these horrible times,” Kurt Pomrenke wrote. “It is horrible what our government is doing to her. She will be proven innocent.”
Bowman is a lawyer and had been cooperating with the widely publicized investigation into corruption at BVU, and had made his cooperation known in the news media, the Supreme Court noted. He was shocked to receive the note from Pomrenke, and drove directly to the U.S. attorney’s office in Abingdon, Virginia, to show it to them. This note, and an email that Stacey Pomrenke sent to five friends asking for their support, caused prosecutors to try to revoke her bond, which the judge denied. Instead, U.S. District Judge James P. Jones charged her with contempt of court for attempted witness tampering. He later found her guilty of this, and added two months to her 32-month corruption sentence in August 2016.
Next, on the eve of his wife’s trial in February 2016, then-Judge Pomrenke left a voicemail for a BVU employee expected to testify during the trial. “Hey Connie, this is Kurt,” the judge said, according to the Supreme Court. “Um, when you’re testifying in that trial there might be a couple of things that you could do that would really help Stacey. If you could kinda slip in when you have a chance just little remarks like how Stacey did a great job, or Stacey was the one that took care of the employees. . .just something like that even though it’s not directly in response to the questions.”
That didn’t sit too well with Judge Jones.
Bowman didn’t end up testifying in the trial but the employee, Connie Moffatt, did. The jury convicted Stacey Pomrenke on 14 of 15 charges, and three days later the judge directed the government to prosecute her for contempt of court, based on both her email and her husband’s contacts with Bowman and Moffatt.