In much of America, judicial oversight is so lax that misconduct by small-town judges can go unchecked. A judge in the Ozarks was suspected of sexually exploiting women for years. Efforts to unseat him went nowhere, until an unusually vigilant watchdog agency took on the case.
She was 30 years old, jobless and facing a custody fight for two young children. To keep her kids, she needed a lawyer – someone cheap and willing to see her quickly.
Tim Parker seemed ideal. He was available, and his fee was about half what another lawyer quoted. According to confidential testimony reviewed by Reuters, the woman told state authorities that Parker agreed to represent her in late 2013, then offered her some unexpected advice.
“‘You need yourself a Sugar Daddy,’ is exactly what he said,” the woman said in the confidential testimony. “He was very persistent on it and knew that I was pretty much broke.”
The woman told authorities that she covered part of her legal fees by having sex with Parker, and that Parker paid her at least $3,000 for more sex over the next two years. Typically, allegations that a lawyer had sex with a client or exchanged services for sex would be handled by local police or state ethics officials.
But Parker’s case was complicated: He wasn't just a lawyer. He was also a part-time judge for the Carroll County District Court.
That gave Arkansas' judicial oversight agency the jurisdiction to investigate Parker. Although the woman declined to talk with Reuters, she alleged in secret testimony to the agency that Parker had also used his authority as a judge to help her friends bond out of jail, again in return for sex. The alleged conduct was not isolated, according to the confidential records reviewed by Reuters and interviews with eight law enforcement officials in Arkansas.
City police, the sheriff’s office, the state police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a federal grand jury investigated Parker for about four years. Witnesses gave evidence that the judge disclosed the identity of a confidential informant; traded money and opioids for sex; and gave favorable treatment to young women in his courtroom, Reuters found.
Despite the intense scrutiny, Parker, 58, was never charged with any crime. In brief interviews with Reuters, Parker said he did nothing wrong, as a judge or as a lawyer. In a statement, Parker’s lawyer said the allegations of illegal drug use and sexual misconduct are “absolutely untrue.”
Still, Parker’s term on the bench ended in disgrace, when the state judicial commission forced his removal and resignation on what was already scheduled to be his final day in office.
The story of Tim Parker shows how hard it can be to remove an American judge suspected of corruption. It also illustrates how, even after misconduct on the bench becomes an open secret, a judge can remain in power for years when his victims are people who typically make for poor witnesses – in this case, petty criminals and drug addicts.
In its investigation into judicial misconduct across America, Reuters sought to identify people harmed as a result of judges who break the law or violate their sworn oaths. Over a dozen years, the news agency found at least 5,206 people who were directly affected by a judge’s misconduct. The victims ranged from individuals who were illegally jailed to those subjected to racist, sexist and other abusive comments or actions.
Parker’s case also provides a different, more hopeful lesson about ensuring accountability in America's state and local courts, however. It demonstrates how a well-staffed and persistent state judicial oversight agency – the exception, not the rule, in the United States – can hold judges to account when other authorities can’t.
“A lot of times, the public and even law enforcement didn’t know we were there, or what we could do,” said Lance Womack, chief investigator for the Arkansas Judicial Discipline & Disability Commission from 2000 to 2017. “They didn’t realize that we could get a judge off the bench or disciplined for ethics, even when there might not be enough to get a criminal conviction.”
As part of its national investigation into judicial misconduct, Reuters analyzed staffing and disciplinary actions by state oversight commissions for a dozen years – from January 2008 through December 2019.
The news agency found Arkansas has one of the better-staffed oversight agencies in the United States. Nationally, commissions have on average one full-time employee for every 155 judges. Arkansas has roughly one staffer for every 53 state judges.
Arkansas took disciplinary action against a judge 40 times from 2008 through 2019, a greater frequency than in all but five states, Reuters determined. Nationally, commissions on average publicly disciplined 6 in every 100 judges. In Arkansas, the ratio was 13 per 100.
A trained, experienced staff is fundamental, said Robert Tembeckjian, who has supervised more than 2,500 judicial investigations and leads New York's commission.
“It’s not enough to adopt an ethics code,” he said. “Without vigorous oversight, judges may act with impunity, and litigants and the public will lose faith in the courts.”
The Arkansas commission is among the few that investigate anonymous complaints and make every disciplinary decision public. It has filed formal charges against state supreme court justices and has cracked cases that have sent trial judges to prison.
Arkansas commission director David Sachar, the son of a preacher, is the past president of the national Association of Judicial Disciplinary Counsel and speaks frequently at international conferences on misconduct by judges. He and his former deputy, Emily White, said they pursued Parker and others with the same mindset they applied earlier in their careers as sex crimes prosecutors in Little Rock.
“The average citizen cannot be expected to brush off improper or undignified behavior by a judge,” Sachar said in a 2018 speech to a United Nations conference. “The power imbalance is such that an employee, party or professional in that court have no way to respond without fear of a harsh or vindictive counter-response from a powerful public official.”
“We didn’t see what was coming”
Perched on a remote ridge in the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas, Eureka Springs is a city of 2,000 people, about a four-hour drive from the state capital of Little Rock.
Its Victorian-era shops, bars, spas and hotels draw a million tourists annually, said Mayor Butch Berry. Those visitors fuel the local economy. They also account for many arrests for crimes related to partying, such as speeding, drunken driving and petty drug use.
Like much of Eureka Springs, the limestone courthouse on Main Street has been preserved and looks much as it did when it opened in 1908. Parker had served there from 1999 to 2004 as district court judge. And so, in 2013, after the incumbent resigned to focus on a corporate legal job, the governor appointed Parker to fill the vacancy.
The part-time gig was not unusual. In hundreds of small U.S. towns and rural counties, where the caseloads are light and the court meets just a few times a month, a local lawyer is appointed or elected as a part-time judge. The lawyers can continue their private practices, typically their primary source of income, but they are bound by ethics codes for both attorneys and judges.
When Parker was tapped for the bench, he promised to treat everyone fairly. “I plan to be a humble judge that follows the law,” he told the local newspaper.
At the outset, Parker enjoyed the community’s backing because of his previous stint as judge, recalled Earl Hyatt, the police chief from 1996 to 2014.
“I actually wrote a letter to the governor supporting his appointment,” Hyatt told Reuters. “We didn’t see what was coming: drugs, sex and using his position on the bench to further his personal interests.”
“Rumor is I have candy”
Among the landmarks in Eureka Springs is a six-story statue of Jesus. Another is the Cathouse Lounge and Pied Piper Pub & Inn, a self-described biker bar and restaurant steps from the courthouse. Parker was a frequent patron.
From the Pied Piper on April 19, 2013, phone records show, the judge texted a woman half his age. Police say the exchanges were filled with coded drug references.
“Rumor is I have candy,” Parker texted.
“Omg,” the young woman replied.
When Parker texted that he couldn’t meet right away, she said,
“What if I make it worth your while?”
“Sure, that’ll work,” the judge wrote back.
On April 22, 2013, Parker texted the same woman again from his office: “I am all alone.”
Her response: “LOL ooooh !! So am i :) were u able to find me anything good? If so it could b fuuuun ;)”
Yes, Parker texted back. Seven opioid hydrocodone pills, “plus a bunch of blue and yellow capsules.”
The judge asked if he should swing by her place.
“Ok that cool,” she replied.
“On my way,” he texted back.
The text messages are among the confidential records Reuters reviewed, compiled over four years by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities. The records identify by name six women who told investigators about interactions with Parker that related to drugs, sex or both. He denies the accusations. Reuters is not naming the women, whom police consider victims.
“You bet I’m still in fear of retaliation,” one of the women told Reuters. “He was a judge and I’m a peon. Yes, I’m a felon, but I’m also a human and don’t have less rights.”
The woman spoke with Reuters on condition of anonymity, as did the woman Parker texted from the bar. Both said they were opioid addicts at the time and are now in recovery.
“Back then I would do anything to get my fix,” said the woman Parker texted. “I was struggling to make ends meet. He definitely took advantage of that.”
Parker’s lawyer denied that his client ever offered drugs for sex or possessed pills without a prescription.
In summer 2013, a few months after the text exchanges, the woman’s ex-boyfriend took her phone to city police. They sent it to the FBI to extract the texts and call logs.
“I know you’re a snitch”
One of a judge’s most sensitive duties is approving search warrants. Typically, warrants are sealed to permit police to surprise suspects and to protect the identities of informants.
In sworn statements, city police say they became alarmed early in Parker’s tenure when the names of informants in methamphetamine cases began to leak. One informant showed police a text she received from a Parker acquaintance, the records show.
According to a sworn testimony from former police chief Hyatt, the text read in part: “I know you’re a snitch. Parker told me what you’ve been doing… You could die for this.”
Hyatt said he alerted the FBI about the text message.
“We took it extremely seriously,” Hyatt told Reuters. “That could end up in grievous bodily injury or death to an informant.”
Parker’s lawyer, John Everett, called the allegation “simply not true.” As a part-time judge, Parker maintained his law practice when he wasn’t on the bench, Everett said in a written statement. Parker learned the identities of confidential informants through his work as an attorney, not as a judge, Everett said, and never disclosed their identities to anyone “while serving as judge.”
For police, a tipping point came on a Saturday morning in September 2013, when one of Parker’s female clients was arrested at the Pied Piper for meth possession. Parker came to the jail that Saturday and ordered her release. Parker’s lawyer said the judge’s action was not uncommon or unethical.
Local police viewed it differently. Most people arrested on a Saturday would not go before a judge until Monday, they said. To them, Parker’s intervention was outrageous. Thomas Achord, then a city detective, said he had been searching for the arrested woman as part of a local and federal drug investigation.
“When she was booked, I got an automated email alert,” he told Reuters. “I called the jail, but they said Judge Parker had already come and had her released. I couldn’t believe it.”
Other police officers also complained that the judge routinely refused to enforce the state’s impaired-driving law in court and seemed to favor young female defendants.
In response, Hyatt tasked a detective to compile court records and mugshots of everyone arrested for drunken or impaired driving since Parker had taken the bench. The detective concluded that the judge was more likely to dismiss cases against women aged 20 to 4o – so long as they weren’t obese – than others arrested for the same offenses. Police delivered a binder containing the mug shots and records to the FBI, hoping agents there would pursue a public corruption case.
“It’s not enough to adopt an ethics code. Without vigorous oversight, judges may act with impunity, and litigants and the public will lose faith in the courts.”
Parker’s lawyer Everett said the judge always followed proper bond procedure and that the police analysis of Parker’s record “borders on being laughable.”
“Surely the investigating officers have something better do with their time than to review these kinds of records,” he said.
An FBI spokesman referred queries to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
Hyatt, the former police chief, said he assumed federal authorities would pursue the judge. “I wanted a criminal prosecution,” he told Reuters. “I wanted him to face the same thing anyone else would, given the circumstances.”
In August 2015, Parker drew the attention of another law enforcement agency, the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, which was unaware of the other investigations.
A woman was arrested for beating her adult son, sticking a gun in his face and threatening to kill him, the arrest report shows. From jail, she called Parker at his law firm. Reuters reviewed a recording of the conversation.
“Oh my God, please, Tim, get me out of here,” the woman told Parker. “It’s horrible.”
As the woman began to blurt out details of her arrest, Parker interrupted.
“Just settle down,” Parker said, warning that calls from the jail are recorded. “Don’t be saying anything over the telephone.”
When Parker asked about the status of her case, the woman said she was waiting for a judge “to set bond or something this afternoon –”
Parker cut her off. “I can come in and do that,” he said.
A few hours later, the judge headed to the jail, ordered the woman released without bail and drove her away, according to sworn statements by police officers. A year later, prosecutors dropped the charges against the woman.
Parker, who said he once represented the woman’s husband, told Reuters he doesn’t remember the jailhouse call. But he said it was proper for him to respond to a request from a defendant for a bond hearing. He denied that he drove the woman from the jail.
J.J. Reddick, a sheriff’s lieutenant, said that when he heard about the call, he began to investigate the judge.
“He came over, did a bond hearing and took her home,” Reddick said. “Who gets personally involved like that, as a judge? That was amazing to me.”
Reddick started digging, carefully, so as not to tip off Parker. In fall 2015, he began interviewing young women already in jail for petty crimes. One told him that she knew seven women – herself included – who had had sex with Parker for cash or reduced bond.
Reuters reviewed a video of that woman’s interview with Reddick. During the interview, she joked that she could name even more women if she had access to her list of Facebook friends.
“That’s how bad it is,” the woman said.
She then began to describe her own encounter with Parker, but stopped suddenly. Reddick assured her that she should not be ashamed.
The woman nodded. “The prostitution is bad,” she said, “but where he’s telling me he’ll set my bond low where I could get out, I think is different, because that is using his power against other people.”
“If I didn’t sleep with you, you would set it high?” the woman said. “That’s more fucked up.”
At one point, the woman became exasperated, noting she had already discussed Parker’s conduct with federal authorities. “The messed-up thing is that I told them this a year ago!”
Reddick, who was unaware of the FBI investigation, said calmly, “I promise you I’m not going to just let this go away. If I don’t get somebody to listen to me, I’m going to go to somebody else and keep going. I don’t care if I have to go to Little Rock.”
“Everybody knows it’s crooked”
About six months later, Reddick approached an official from the judicial commission, based in the capital of Little Rock. At the time – spring 2016 – the commission was busy with a high-profile investigation, one starkly similar to the Parker case.
A judge on the other side of the state, Joseph Boeckmann, was suspected of sexual misconduct with young men facing petty criminal and traffic offenses. The judicial commission’s handling of the Boeckmann case offers an example of how an aggressive oversight agency can have a decisive impact: It led to a federal indictment charging the judge with abuse of power. Boeckmann pleaded guilty to dismissing cases in return for “sexually related conduct.” He was sentenced to five years in prison, two more than prosecutors sought.
“He’s the traffic judge in a small town,” U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker said as she sentenced Boeckmann. “He is the System. He acted corruptly while performing his core duty as a judge.”
With Boeckmann in handcuffs, commission director Sachar turned to Parker.
By then, Sachar had to hurry. It was mid-October 2016, and Parker had just 75 days left in his term. Most judicial investigations can’t be completed that quickly. Gathering evidence against a judge can take months, sometimes years. And if a judge contests the allegations – as records show Parker did – the process can stretch even longer.
Sachar pressed on. He concluded that if any case could be made against Parker, a finding by the commission would send needed messages – to Parker, his victims, other judges and the public. After all, in Sachar’s view, a small town had essentially surrendered to the authority of a corrupt judge. This couldn’t continue or be allowed to happen again, he reasoned.
“Everybody knows it’s crooked,” Sachar said. “Everybody. The judge is doing personal favors, quid pro quo, and people know it. What does that say to people who were locked up and didn’t get out?”
Adding to Sachar’s outrage and urgency: alarming testimony from a woman who alleged she’d had sex with Parker for cash and judicial favors. The woman alleged that, after receiving a commission subpoena to testify about Parker, he paid her $100 for a copy of the subpoena and offered advice on what to tell investigators.
The woman couldn’t recall the judge’s precise words but told commission investigators that Parker said, in effect, “I’m not telling you to lie, but if you do, I won’t say anything.”
Parker’s lawyer denied that the judge paid anyone for a copy of a subpoena or advised anyone to lie to authorities.
Sachar struck a deal with Parker on his last day in office, December 31, 2016. The judge disputed the sex and drug allegations but admitted that he improperly got friends and former clients out of jail. Under the agreement, he “resigned” but was also “removed.” As important: Parker was banned for life from returning to the bench. The outcome, Sachar believes, put other judges on notice.
“I felt like we just couldn’t let him walk away,” Sachar said. “Symbolically, I wanted him removed to make a statement.”
The case against Parker did not end on the last day of 2016. There would be at least two more investigations.
A special state prosecutor requested Sachar’s case file to comb through the evidence of drug use, prostitution and corruption. The FBI also received the evidence and a federal grand jury heard testimony, records show, but no charges were filed. A federal spokesman declined to comment.
In January 2018, more than two years after Parker resigned, Arkansas special prosecutor Jason Barrett completed his probe without filing charges. He cited the difficulty in locating witnesses and victims. Five other law enforcement officials also told Reuters that they struggled to build cases against Parker because the former judge’s alleged victims made for poor witnesses.
The women proved hard to locate and reluctant to cooperate, the authorities said. In cop slang, most were “frequent flyers” – people caught in a cycle of petty crime, addiction, escalating court fines and probation violations that led to repeat jail stays. Most were young mothers. They rotated jobs, addresses and phone numbers every few months, as money, drugs and relationships came and went. Several had outstanding warrants, and feared going public might trigger their arrests.“They just wanted it to go away,” said deputy Reddick. “They didn’t want to have to go on the stand and face people and let them know what they’d done.”
As a single mother who exchanged sex with the judge for pills and cash told Reuters, “I hate that this happened.” Said another: “I feel shame.”
The special prosecutor told Reuters that he forwarded a file to the state attorney discipline agency to review whether Parker violated rules of conduct for lawyers. That agency’s director, Stark Ligon, said that he could not comment on the case, except to say that the “file remains open and under investigation.”
Meantime, Parker has continued to practice law. In February, the former judge appeared at the Eureka Springs courthouse, this time as a defense attorney. Among the charges against his client: illegally possessing opioids and assaulting a woman.
The Teflon Robe
By John Shiffman and Michael Berens
Contributing reporting: Andrea Januta and Caroline Monahan
Data: Isabella Jibilian, John Shiffman and Michael Berens
Graphic: Matthew Weber
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins
Video: Craig Hettich
Design: Troy Dunkley and Pete Hausler
Edited by Blake Morrison