A federal judge, promising a "horde of witnesses" in his defense, pleaded not guilty Wednesday to charges he fondled a former case manager and tried to force her into a sexual act.
U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent was indicted last week on what he called "flagrant, scurrilous" charges following a Justice Department investigation into complaints by case manager Cathy McBroom.
"I plead absolutely, unequivocally not guilty and look very much forward to a trial on the merits," a feisty Kent told 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edward Prado, brought to Houston to hear the case.
Kent was released on his own recognizance and did not speak to reporters. His wife, Sarah, attended the hearing and the couple left the courthouse holding hands.
"The charges are lies. He's now eager for his day in court," Kent's attorney, Dick DeGuerin, said after the hearing.
Prosecutors wouldn't comment after the hearing.
Kent, 59, faces two counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse. If convicted of attempted aggravated sexual abuse, Kent could face up to life in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. Each of the two counts of abusive sexual contact carries a sentence of up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Accusations of physical sexual harassment
McBroom accused the judge of physical sexual harassment over a four-year period starting in 2003 when he was the only U.S. district court judge in Galveston, an island beach town 50 miles southeast of Houston.
The alleged final incident was in March 2007, when McBroom said the judge pulled up her blouse and bra and was trying to force her to perform oral sex when they were interrupted.
Her accusations were first investigated by the Judicial Council of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That panel suspended Kent in September 2007 for four months with pay but didn't detail the allegations against him.
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. McBroom did not appear in court Wednesday.
Kent is the first federal judge to be charged with sex crimes. The last federal judge to be criminally charged was Robert F. Collins, a Louisiana-based judge accused in 1991 of scheming with a New Orleans businessman to split a drug smuggler's $100,000 payoff. Most indictments of federal judges have been for corruption or other financial misdeeds.
Only Congress can remove a federal judge through the impeachment process, which starts with the House voting for impeachment and then the Senate holding a trial.
Since 1803, the House has impeached 13 judges and the Senate has convicted seven of them. Two others resigned after being impeached by the House, according to the Federal Judicial Center's Web site.
Lawmakers usually wait for the criminal process to conclude before proceeding with impeachment.