Image: U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent
Pat Sullivan  /  AP file
U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent leaves the federal courthouse following his arraignment Wednesday, Jan. 7, in Houston.
updated 2/23/2009 2:09:22 PM ET 2009-02-23T19:09:22

A federal judge pleaded guilty Monday to lying to investigators by denying he sexually abused his secretary. In exchange, prosecutors dropped five sex-crime charges alleging he groped the secretary and another female court employee.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent, the first federal judge charged with a sex crime, also retired, effective immediately, avoiding possible impeachment by Congress.

Kent's guilty plea to obstruction of justice came as jury selection for his trial was to begin.

The jurist, who once shouted in court that he would bring "hordes of witnesses" in his defense, spoke barely above a whisper as he pleaded guilty to lying to a judicial committee investigating the sex-related charges.

"Judge Kent believes this compromise settlement was in the best interests of all involved," his lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, said in a statement. "A trial would have been embarrassing and difficult for all involved."

A shortened prison sentence
Kent, 59, had been facing six charges — five related to federal sex crimes and the obstruction charge. Under the plea agreement, prosecutors will seek no more than three years in prison when Kent is sentenced on May 11. Obstruction, a felony, carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Kent had vigorously maintained his innocence. DeGuerin had said the judge's conduct with the two women was consensual.

Prosecutors had said they would present evidence showing there was nothing consensual about what Kent did with the women: Cathy McBroom, his former case manager, and Donna Wilkerson, the judge's secretary. Both were in the courtroom as Kent entered his guilty plea.

"I'm very happy this part of the process is over," McBroom said afterward. "I feel extremely relieved and I look forward to the sentencing."

"We're happy today," said Terry Yates, Wilkerson's attorney. "The judge has accepted responsibility for what occurred. We look forward to May 11 (the sentencing date) and seeing that justice is done in this case."

The Associated Press does not normally name alleged victims of sexual abuse, but McBroom's attorney and her family have used her name in publicly discussing the case. Wilkerson appeared outside the federal courthouse with her lawyer, who used her name to reporters. The women did not take questions.

Authorities first investigated Kent after McBroom filed a complaint against him in May 2007 and the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals began a probe.

Allegations of harassment
McBroom accused Kent of harassing her over a four-year period, culminating in March 2007, when she said the judge pulled up her blouse and bra and tried to escalate contact until they were interrupted.

The judicial council suspended Kent in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him. It also transferred him to Houston, 50 miles northwest of Galveston, where he had worked since being appointed in 1990.

A Justice Department investigation of McBroom's claims led to Kent's indictment in August on three federal sex charges.

Last month, prosecutors added two more sex charges and the obstruction charge, accusing Kent of trying to engage his former secretary in a sex act and then lying about it to the judicial council.

DeGuerin had said Kent and his secretary were involved in a longtime affair and he didn't reveal it to the judicial council because he was being a "gentleman."

The lawyer also told the presiding judge that Kent was taking medication for depression and anxiety as well as diabetes and was under the care of both a psychiatrist and a psychologist.

Kent, appointed by President George H.W. Bush, has been on the bench for nearly 19 years. Federal judges are appointed for life and can only be forcibly removed through impeachment by Congress.

If he had been convicted of the most serious federal sex crimes charges, Kent could have received a sentence of up to life in prison.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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