black robes on the ropes
Due to charges stemming from an anonymous complaint, Judge Cedric Simpson faces removal from the bench. He speaks out about how he’s been treated by the system he’s a part of.
Story By JIM McBEE and STEVE FRIESS
Washtenaw County may be about to lose its only black jurist.
The story is tangled in insinuations of an improper liaison with a young intern, evidence of drug use by court officials, a toxic relationship between two judges and one man’s fear that enemies are out to get him.
In the coming months, longtime Washtenaw County Judge J. Cedric Simpson is expected to appear before the Michigan Supreme Court to appeal a recommendation by the Judicial Tenure Commission that he be removed from the bench. The JTC recommended the removal in August after a lengthy investigation in which the commission and a retired judge determined Simpson had lied under oath about events and circumstances surrounding his involvement in the Sept. 8, 2013, drunken-driving arrest of his student and intern, Crystal Vargas.
Some details are not in dispute. Simpson acknowledges having had exhaustive – though, he insists, innocent – text-message conversations with the 26-year-old Vargas and having shown up at the scene of the accident in which a drunken Vargas collided with a tow truck near Michigan Avenue and Platt Road in Pittsfield Township. Simpson admits he spoke to officers and Vargas at the scene and identified himself as a judge, and that he contacted the township police afterward to obtain copies of her arrest record.
The judge flatly denies attempting to interfere with or influence the investigation or having an inappropriate relationship with the young woman who, they both say, confided in Simpson during summer 2013 about struggles she was having with an allegedly violent boyfriend.
• Perverse justice: politics and hubris inside the Washtenaw County Courts
As part of an investigation by The Ann into the case prompted by Simpson’s willingness to sit for a three-hour interview, The Ann obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request a thicket of previously unseen internal documents related to the case. In more than 100 pages of emails, it becomes clear that officers found it peculiar that Simpson appeared at the scene on Sept. 8, 2013, but did not express any concerns at the time about whether he had gotten in the way or tried to throw his weight around.
“We did everything right, found her at fault, arrested her for OWI,” wrote Lt. Sean McCormick, the patrol operations supervisor, on Sept. 9, 2013, to Pittsfield Deputy Police Chief Gordon Schick and Public Safety Director Matthew Harshberger. Referring to Dennis Brewer, the owner of the tow-truck company, McCormick concluded, “He was happy everything was on the up and up since the judge showed up.”
The beat cop, Robert Cole, found Simpson’s presence so innocuous he didn’t think it relevant to mention in his report. And in an email about seven hours after the crash, Harshberger wrote to Shift Sgt. Hank Fusik that it “sounds like Ofc. Cole handled everything by the numbers.”
But six weeks later, Judge Kirk Tabbey, then the chief judge of the 14A District Court, took unusual interest in the matter and persistently demanded Simpson’s accident-scene visit be written into some report somewhere. Harshberger, prodded by Tabbey, asked Schick on Nov. 4 why Cole’s report “did not mention any contact that he had with Judge Simpson.” Schick replied 20 minutes later: “Perhaps Cole didn’t see the relevancy for prosecutorial purposes.”
Simpson contends that Cole didn’t – but Tabbey did. While the JTC has refused to say who requested the disciplinary probe into Simpson’s conduct, he believes it may have been Tabbey. Tabbey, asked point-blank by The Ann, did not answer the question. (See Tabbey’s response.)
What follows is an edited, annotated Q-and-A with Simpson, who also provided The Ann with several internal documents related to his case that are posted for the public here.
The Ann: Do you think you’ve gotten a fair shake?
Simpson: My heart tells me no. The process is what the process is. But has the public gotten the true story? Do they have all of the facts and circumstances behind everything? If it were determined after getting a chance to look at everything that I shouldn’t be on the bench, I can’t have a problem with that.
The Ann: OK. So what’s missing? What hasn’t been presented to the JTC or to the public?
Simpson: My affirmative statement. In terms of any relationship other than (Vargas) being an intern, there was no inappropriate relationship of any nature with her whatsoever. There was no intimate relationship of any nature whatsoever. There was no sexual relationship whatsoever. The JTC just would not come out and say that publicly, and that was one of the things to me that was offensive to everything I stand for.
The Ann: You feel you were actively being smeared. Why?
Simpson: They had to make this story sexy and juicy because otherwise no one would pay attention. The reality is, without all of that, you’ve got somebody who’s woken up, comes out of his bed in the middle of the night and goes to the scene and doesn’t do much at the scene. I don’t know that she’s drunk or that she’s been drinking. You’ve got that, and you’ve got a call for a police report from a boss to the prosecutor’s office. That’s really all you have. Those things can be resolved. Did I act inappropriately in any of that? Well, then let’s deal with that.
The Ann: Who was out to get you?
Simpson: Judge Tabbey. His motivation is what he perceived as an embarrassment that took place back in 2002 when I became chief of the court. His caseload and his cases, the whole court was backed up. It was a mess. I had to take what was an extreme measure, I had to take time out of my docket. Both Judge Conlin and I had to go to Ypsi to handle cases. I had to clean up the files. That always stuck in (Tabbey’s) craw from the time that initially occurred. I felt I was doing my job. He has never let that go. And so everything that he’s done since then has always been in the background.
The Ann: So, not the best relationship between you and Judge Tabbey.
Simpson: (Chuckle) That would be accurate.
Simpson asserted that it was Vargas’ confiding in him about her abusive relationship that started their texting relationship on July 23, 2013, two weeks after Vargas came to work at his office. He referenced a July 22 email in which Vargas first described the troubles with her boyfriend in explaining her absence from a class at Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where Simpson teaches. “She said her health or her schooling were being jeopardized, that she needed to get out of her apartment,” he recalled. “That led to a series of text messages and conversations with her regarding things that she could do. I wasn’t clear myself on how to handle it.” The JTC, according to Simpson, was shown the email from Vargas in early July about her domestic abuse situation and struck it from the record.
Vargas appeared at work that day with bruises, he said, and she was “frantically preparing a letter to the apartment complex trying to get out of her lease. … I’m going so far playing a role as the professor and as a mentor.”
• So many texts: We help you keep them straight.
Aside from that drama, Simpson said, the second half of 2013 was also a period when Vargas was assisting him as he presided over the sexual assault case of former defense attorney Nader Nassif. Vargas, Simpson said, was one of his interns and had the mammoth task of working through some 100,000 text messages obtained from Nassif’s phone. Simpson said he and Vargas had a lot of interaction about the very complicated matter of how to protect confidentiality of clients when a defense attorney’s phone is seized. (Nassif eventually struck a plea deal that included a suspended sentence, two years probation, 50 hours of community service and $1,500 in fines.)
The JTC posited that the first wave of material in the Nassif case didn’t come to Simpson until Sept. 12, 2013, but he said he was contending with Nassif material in mid-August, around the time of the first court date.
Meanwhile, Simpson recalled an attorney observing the Nassif proceedings on Aug. 15. He tried to get that attorney to jump in for a defendant who was in court without a lawyer, but the attorney said he wasn’t working. Simpson found it unusual that an attorney friend of Nassif’s would bother to attend something as routine as an arraignment.
The judge refused to say who the attorney is or why this matters, but he said he sees a conspiracy around the Nassif case. One thing that stood out to Simpson: Vargas was assigned to the Nassif case. She told Simpson that then-Judge Christopher Easthope — who turned up in texts with Nassif about drug use and requests for special consideration in Easthope’s courtroom — had asked her to intern in his office, instead. Easthope resigned in July after the text exchanges with Nassif were made public.
The Ann: The JTC repeatedly declared a number of your statements as false but they don’t indicate what evidence they had.
Simpson: They don’t. The recommendation takes two major and critical pieces and doesn’t really address them. One is Ms. Vargas’ domestic violence situation, and they don’t address Nassif. I’m not clear why, because if you want to place in context what I’m doing, you can’t address it without addressing those two things. It’s kind of appalling to me, but they said that I made up her domestic violence to cover a relationship.
The Ann: And the JTC won’t say who complained about you?
Simpson: No, we do not have anything formal from them telling us that. Apparently, this is one of the first times in the JTC’s 46-year history that that is the case. According to a June 2014 edition of The Ann magazine, Paul Fischer, the commission’s executive director, said the commission discloses the identity of complainants to judges, and that circumstances that would warrant anonymity are very rare. “In fact,” Fischer said, “I can’t even think of one.”
Simpson said he took the Nassif material home because he believed Easthope, who was implicated in the Nassif scandal, would otherwise have had access to the evidence. Bolstering this fear, Simpson said a security guard alerted him in August 2013 that there may have been an attempt to breach security in the court facility. A review of the logs showed a transport officer – and alleged friend of Easthope – had been in parts of the building during unusual hours, Simpson claimed.
Simpson: In my head, without trying to get too paranoid, I think, “The lights are on in my office, I’ve got this Nassif case, this guy’s here off-shift.”
In early September, as both Simpson and investigators were working through the Nassif texts, Simpson said he received a package of Nassif text messages from an anonymous source, separate from the sorting process already under way. In it, Simpson says, was compromising information implying drug use “going on throughout” the Washtenaw County judicial system.
As a precaution, Simpson said, he sought to keep it a secret that Vargas was the intern handling the Nassif case. But another intern, in late September, asked Vargas to dinner and proceeded to ask her about the Nassif matter.
Simpson: Ms. Vargas was instructed she’s not to tell anybody she’s working on Nassif. The instructions to Ms. Vargas were, “If anybody mentions Nassif or says anything about Nassif in your presence or sneezes and says something that sounds like Nassif, I want to know.” She came back from that dinner and said that the other intern, that was basically all he talked about. From my perspective at that point, given all of the interest in these messages and everything, I felt rather certain somebody had gotten to one of my interns and that their objective was to get information.
• See Crystal Vargas’ video statement.
Simpson said some of the texts between Vargas and himself were actually snapshots of salacious texts or images from the Nassif material. In October, he fired the intern who was pressing Vargas for information; that intern would be rehired by Tabbey.
Simpson: Judge Tabbey has claimed he was trying to have this young man continue his internship. What Judge Tabbey doesn’t know, and I guess that maybe he’ll figure it out now, is that that is an impossibility because the school, based upon my termination in part, filed a complaint against the intern and he voluntarily withdrew from school.
The Ann: He couldn’t legally have been an intern?
Simpson: He could have been an intern, but he wasn’t a law student at that time, so there was nothing to help him through.
• Read Judge Tabbey’s response here.
Simpson said he had many unusual visitors to his office in those months, people he wouldn’t otherwise expect to pop by and whose reasons for stopping in were questionable. As he made his way through the Nassif texts, though, he realized many of the visitors appeared in them. He said he cloistered himself socially in that period to avoid saying anything that could later be used to claim he had tainted the case. “As you can imagine, that’s a very lonely existence, but it was something I was going to have to do with this case,” he said.
Simpson: My dining room was basically set up as this war room for me to go through the Nassif material. When they talk about some of the text messages (between Vargas and me) being late at night, understanding that I’d just recently gone through a divorce, my oldest daughter was living with me, I’d gotten (the) Nassif (case) and I was teaching two nights a week at different schools. There are going to be conversations that are not going to take place between 8 to 5. I’m dealing with her at whatever hours, some of them during the day. It was almost a seven-day-a-week task.
Not only did they have to read the material but they had to legally analyze what might be privileged attorney-client work, as well as sorting out idle chatter from what might have had criminal implications.
The Ann: I won’t lie, if somebody looked at some of the texts that I have with one of my friends, they would think I was the worst person on earth.
Simpson: Exactly. Without that backdrop, it may sound ludicrous that I’m dealing (with Vargas) over that form of communication and at these hours. It may sound ludicrous that I’m not dealing with it in the office. It may sound ludicrous that I didn’t assign another intern to help deal with it. When you understand everything that’s happening at that time, I guess some people still might consider it ludicrous. I don’t consider it ludicrous.
The Ann: Have we seen the worst of the Nassif stuff, or is there more that is as disturbing or more disturbing?
Simpson: I think that depends on how you’re looking at it. If I’m a judge and I’m looking to the integrity of the system, you might in some ways have seen some of the worst of what you’re going to see. If I’m a defendant or I’m Joe Q. Public and I want to hire an attorney, I may not have seen the worst. Maybe if I’m just a taxpayer in Ann Arbor, I may not have seen the worst once you begin to connect the people. Sorry about that answer, but that’s as far as I can go.
The Ann: Where does that stand? Nassif’s case has already been handled, but is anybody else going to be called to account or is this just going to go away? I realize it’s not your job to make that decision but …
Simpson: I don’t know, and it bothers me. As someone said, “There are a lot of people out there who are sweating because of what’s in there.” That’s an exaggeration, but some of it’s going to take connecting the people to understand what’s really happening. … There’s no doubt in my mind after having read that that there was some very serious drug trafficking going on (in the court system). There’s a group of people that don’t, also, want this out. It’s going to be devastating to our system. If I’m a victim of a crime and the judge is communicating with defense counsel, what am I to think about what’s going on? I’m not sure why there wasn’t quicker action by the JTC on that. Maybe they were just busy with Cedric Simpson.
The Ann: One of the claims against you is that you didn’t immediately report the Vargas incident to the school the night it happened.
Simpson: This is something that the public doesn’t know – I reported it to the school at 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 9, beginning of the week. It happened on a Sunday. And I reported it to the Chief Judge Pro Tem Judge Conlin on Tuesday.
• Learn which judges serve which districts.
Another bit of timing at issue is whether Simpson lied about having texting conversations over the night that Vargas had her accident. Simpson insisted the JTC was set to claim he did, but his attorney sent a letter outlining why that allegation was false. Simpson provided the letter, which The Ann has posted online.
Simpson: That letter lays out our response. Every time we said something, the story changes. That’s what’s been happening for two years to me. The story just changes. Initially, it was I’m having this affair, although if you notice throughout it all, in anything they put up there, they don’t ever say what the relationship is. They just say there’s this “personal relationship.” I don’t know entirely what that means or what you’re trying to intimate. I mean, I get what you’re trying to publicly smear me with, but they would never come out and say it.
Likewise, Simpson insisted he never pressed Pittsfield Township City Attorney Victor Lillich on the Vargas case. The transcripts from the March 31, 2015, JTC hearing, also posted on The Ann’s website, show Lillich backing up Simpson on that.
Simpson: The attorney then asked, “Well, was there a wink and a nod?” “No.” “Did Judge Simpson in any way try to use his office to influence you?” “No.” I don’t know what more can be said. Mr. Lillich and I have known each other 25 years. He knows I’d never ask him to do anything like that. I just wanted the police report. Mr. Lillich understood why I wanted the police report. He knows how I am. If this intern did not belong there, if she were lying, two critical things were important to me: One is you would not be in my office, and No. 2, the last thing, even if I let you stay in the office if you’re lying to me, the last thing I’m going to have you work on is Nassif.
Simpson said he sought out the report because Vargas told him she had tested a blood alcohol content of .137 at the accident scene and .10 a half-hour later. That’s an unnatural drop, so Simpson worried Vargas was lying to him. “Is that unusual for me? No, I had done it with two previous interns before, where they were involved in some alcohol-related event. I asked for their version, I then get the police report, and then at some time, we have a heart-to-heart about this and, ‘Were you truthful about this,’ and then about your behavior.”
The Ann: Why do you think the JTC was so intent on ignoring evidence that might absolve you?
Simpson: Lawyers are prone to do this. You start with this theory and you become blind to anything that opposes that theory.
The Ann: Is there a racial component to all of this?
Simpson: It’s possible. Some of what has been placed in this case involves stereotypical abuse of views of African-American men and of Hispanics.
The Ann: You’ve had an outpouring of support from the black community. What’s that been like?
Simpson: It’s phenomenal. We don’t have, outside of Wayne County, very many African-American judges. You’ll have them in, like, Grand Rapids. You’ll have them other places where there are larger minority populations. I always was very aware that by virtue of my heritage, I stood as a symbol, but I don’t think I understood how much.
Simpson said many in Michigan’s black legal community see his case as another example of the JTC going after black judges while being less concerned with misconduct by others.
The conversation then turned to how differently Judge Tabbey’s case has been handled.
Tabbey pleaded guilty in October 2014 after being pulled over in September 2014 near Traverse City towing a boat while intoxicated. He served a 90-day suspended sentence. More alarming, the police report indicated that Tabbey repeatedly told the arresting officer he was a judge, although Tabbey denied he sought any special treatment. In December, on the JTC’s recommendation, the Michigan Supreme Court suspended Tabbey from the bench for 90 days without pay.
Simpson: There are other things with Tabbey’s whole case that really do trouble me in terms of favoritism.
The Ann: Like what?
Simpson: The, “I’m a judge. I’m a judge. I’m a judge.” The night of the Vargas incident, I introduced myself as Judge Simpson. That’s a big part of the case against me.
The Ann: OK?
Simpson: But there’s a clear discrepancy between who they go after. Looking at Judge Tabbey’s case, he’s a .19, operating a truck with a boat attached with drugs in the vehicle that he says are not his. When the officers arrive, he really isn’t cooperating with the officers. When you start looking at somebody who is trying to use his position, he’s yelling, “I’m a judge, I’m a judge, I’m a judge,” as though they’re supposed to then act differently. And then when they ask him for ID, he pulls out a judge badge. I’ve been on the bench 16 years, I didn’t get a judge badge. I don’t know what that is. So he does that. If you just contrast Ms. Vargas’ case to his, he gets no probation. He gets fines and costs and basically walks out. She gets six months probation, treatment, if she leaves the state she’s got to report it, she’s being supervised. She loses her license. It’s a problem for me that somebody in our judiciary did not have to go through the same thing as everybody else goes through. That I see as a huge problem. Anybody else who got stopped with drugs in the car, drinking and driving, would have been drug-tested. He wasn’t even drug-tested. I don’t get it.
The Ann: Is it strange to you that Tabbey was so insistent on there being a formal report of your appearance at the Vargas scene and that he took so much interest in those emails?
Simpson: I find it beyond comprehension that he or any judge would be in any way directing the police department as to the substance to be contained in the report which would form the basis of the charges either before or after authorization. That role is clearly reserved to the prosecutor. He claims the police report needed to be changed, but that’s a fallacy. Video reflects my presence and everything that occurred. I never denied being there.
The conversation returned to the question of his text messages.
The Ann: The weakest, most suspicious part of your story is that your texts and emails with Vargas are inaccessible. Texts and emails exist in clouds and servers as well as on specific devices. In most cases, texts remain in the stream of the person you interact with unless you change phone numbers or, perhaps, carriers. Do you see why this is very questionable? If you wanted to definitively prove you were not having an inappropriate relationship, you or Ms. Vargas could show the content of the communications. Why won’t you do so?
Simpson: It is their burden to show that a relationship existed to the extent that it is relevant. But I would love to have produced for public view the contents of all my text messages with Ms. Vargas in 2013. But the text messages were not an issue in the case until almost 16 months after the accident. I know that it looks suspicious that my phone was lost, but this loss was prior to my knowledge that anyone thought this was relevant.
The Ann: But what about now?
Simpson: Once my text messages became an issue, I had my staff contact my carrier, Verizon, to determine any way to retrieve the content and have regrettably determined there is not. I have even personally checked with county IT and the same conclusion was reached. A representative for Ms. Vargas’ carrier, Sprint, testified at my hearing that they do not retain content of text messages sent or received.
The Ann: How has all of this affected your family?
Simpson: My kids are great. Raising kids where you’re in this political arena, they understand over time that people will take shots at you. They also understand and it requires that I am truthful with them and they know that and that I will explain it the best that I can. My daughter said to me, “Well, if they’re saying (Vargas) was at the house, why didn’t you call on us just to respond to that?” I’m not putting them in the middle of all of this. They know she wasn’t there. They’ve said, “What’s going to happen?” I said, “I don’t know.” But I’ve always said and will continue to say, “Judge is what I do, not what I am. If you want to put a tag on me, I’m Dad.” They’re doing good. They worry about their dad, especially when I get into my quiet moments of thought, where I’m not really saying much, but Simpsons are survivors, so we’ll make it through.
sorting the judges