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Dallas’ nastiest ethics fight — complete with allegations of bribery, clandestine tape recordings and alcohol-fueled after-hours ex parte communication — ended recently after a Dallas judge voluntarily resigned from the bench in lieu of discipline. Dallas County Court-at-Law No. 1 Judge David R. Gibson agreed to step down from the bench Jan. 1, 2002. In exchange, the State Commission on Judicial Conduct agreed not to pursue a disciplinary case against Gibson as part of a settlement signed Dec. 6. In an unusual twist to what has been a public controversy, Gibson agreed as part of the settlement that he would not discuss the disciplinary case with the media. Only his lawyers, Randy Johnston and Haynes and Boone’s Ronald Breaux of Dallas, are allowed to speak — and speak only about Gibson’s legal defenses to the proceedings, according to the settlement. A joint statement released by the commission and Gibson states that the judge denies the allegations against him, but Gibson believes “a defense of these charges would cause unnecessary stress to his family and friends, [and] would detract from the dignity of his court, making it impossible for him to continue as a judge.” Gibson also says he plans to return to private practice. On Dec. 14, the commission for the first time released details of the allegations it was investigating regarding Gibson’s conduct. Most of the allegations stem from Universal Image Inc., d/b/a Chalkboardtalk.com v. Yahoo! Inc., et al., a $5 billion breach-of-contract suit filed against Yahoo Inc./Broadcast.com that landed on Gibson’s docket in 1999. Gibson’s former friend and lawyer, Jeffrey T. Robnett, raised the bribery claims last year after he was present at a meeting in which Gibson allegedly discussed sanctions against a plaintiffs’ lawyer in the Yahoo case with Steve Stodghill, a defense lawyer in the case. Robnett claimed in an affidavit that he also listened as Gibson allegedly discussed a judicial fund-raiser with Stodghill while Gibson and Stodghill consumed “numerous” alcoholic beverages, according to the commission’s allegations. Robnett could not be located for comment. Stodghill denies all of the allegations and says the commission never called him to get his side of the story. “I’m extremely stunned that the Judicial Conduct Commission would go down a path on these type of allegations without attempting to contact me at all,” Stodghill says. “I think the allegations concerning Judge Gibson’s ruling are absurd and are without any basis in fact and law.” Robnett and Gibson had gone to Stodghill’s house to discuss Stodghill representing the judge in a divorce modification hearing. Robnett later stated that he misunderstood the context of the conversations. Robnett agreed to wear a wire and record conversations he had with Gibson as part of an FBI investigation, according to the commission’s allegations. According to the commission’s allegations, Gibson should have recused himself from the Yahoo case after Stodghill agreed to represent him in his divorce proceeding for no charge. “Such a gift gave the appearance that Stodghill was in a position to influence Gibson’s judgment in the Yahoo case,” the commission alleges. The commission also alleged that Gibson showed favoritism to an unidentified attorney-mediator with whom he had a personal relationship and that Gibson refused to accept service of a subpoena in connection with a recusal hearing in the Yahoo case. Johnston, Gibson’s lawyer in the disciplinary proceedings, alleges most of the evidence presented to the commission was obtained unethically or illegally. “The No. 1 legal defense [to the case] would be that virtually everything that they asserted was unethical and even illegal evidence,” says Johnston, a partner in Dallas’ Johnston & Tobey. “It’s the product of the judge’s own lawyer [Robnett], while representing him, secretly tape recording him and filing an affidavit against him.” Margaret Reaves, executive director of the Judicial Conduct Commission, disagrees with Johnston’s characterization of the evidence against Gibson. “I don’t think the Judicial Conduct Commission proceeds on illegal information in any case,” Reaves says. Had the case gone to trial, the most serious punishment Gibson could have received was removal from office and an order that the judge never sit on a bench again, Reaves says. Reaves says she cannot discuss whether the commission will prohibit Gibson from seeking a judgeship in the future. Notes Reaves, “The issue of his sitting again is the subject of a confidential agreement with the commission.”

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