A tort claim settled for $51,000 by Lewis County last year includes accusations that District Court Judge R.W. Buzzard drank alcohol in his chambers for a period of time ending about three years ago, that a district court clerk found a loaded gun in an unlocked desk drawer in his office, and that the clerk was fired because of her knowledge of the alcoholism.
Buzzard told The Chronicle last week he doesn’t deny the claims regarding the gun or the alcohol, but asserted that it has nothing to do with why 35-year county employee Pam Shirer was fired in 2016.
“I had the alcohol. I drank when I didn’t have calendars,” he said, admitting to drinking at work for six to eight months. “I never drank while I was presiding over matters and I corrected the problem two years and nine months ago.”
Buzzard, who acknowledged that many of the offenses that come before his court are alcohol-related, said he doesn’t believe his drinking had any impact on his ability to judge cases objectively or accurately.
“I sit and preside over people that have broken the law that involves alcohol,” Buzzard said. “Even though I drank I wasn’t necessarily breaking the law. Bad choices obviously, but not illegal behavior.”
Buzzard was elected to Lewis County District Court in 2004. He met with The Chronicle Thursday, providing the tort claim and settlement in advance of the documents’ release through a public records request. He said he got counseling and is now sober.
Former District Court Judge Michael Roewe said Buzzard never displayed any evidence of impairment on the bench.
“I can’t remember a day that I ever thought he was impaired by any substance of any kind. He is a very bright, hard working character,” Roewe said. “I have great respect for him … I had no clue he was suffering from alcoholism.”
Shirer said she had no inkling anyone was displeased with her work before being fired in September 2016. A few months earlier, in July 2016, she was recognized by the Board of Lewis County Commissioners for her 35 years with the county.
“I was an excellent employee. I had a very good employee record,” she said. “It was devastating. He took so much away and I still to this day have no idea why.”
Shirer said she has suffered from the loss of her salary and benefits and has struggled to find employment.
Buzzard gave a different account of Shirer’s termination.
“She was discharged because she wasn’t good at her job,” he said. “We did what we could to keep her and it wasn’t working out and things are better since then.”
Shirer, formerly the District Court administrator, filed a tort claim with Lewis County on Feb. 15, 2017, reporting that she suffered from “mental anguish, depression, headaches, stomach issues, loss of self esteem and self worth, back and muscle pain (and) insomnia” since she was fired from her job.
In a supplemental document filed with the tort claim, Shirer reported that she believes she was fired by Buzzard because she knew about the gun and his drinking problem.
“I was in total shock. I couldn’t understand why I was let go,” she told The Chronicle. “I was trying to come up with reasons, why he was acting the way he did and why he treated me (the way he did), completely out of the blue.”
She asked for $250,000 in damages or the total salary and benefits she would have received from September 2016, when she was fired, to the day damages would be paid.
Buzzard said Shirer asked him for severance, which he denied, and also made a claim that she was discriminated against based on her age.
The county settled Shirer’s claim, agreeing to pay her $51,000 on April 20, 2017.
Buzzard noted Shirer was fired a year and a half after he admitted his alcoholism to her.
“I don’t think there’s any connection between my conduct and her being discharged,” he said. “I would tell you I think the claim that was made is because it was what got her paid some money.”
In Shirer’s tort claim, she wrote that she learned in 2013 or 2014 that Roewe had found empty vodka bottles in Buzzard’s backpack in his office.
Roewe confronted Buzzard and said they had a “frank” discussion. Buzzard characterized Roewe’s manner as “fatherly.”
Roewe told Buzzard of his concerns for his career and personal life and suggested options for seeking treatment, Buzzard said.
“I didn’t hear any of it until I was ready,” Buzzard said. “Once I was ready I turned around.”
When asked why he didn’t report Buzzard’s alcoholism further, Roewe asked, “Who would I be reporting it to?”
Shirer said it wasn’t the first she’d heard of an alcohol problem.
“Previous to the discovery of empty vodka bottles, two different clerks, at different times, confided to me that they smelled alcohol when speaking with Judge Buzzard in his chambers,” Shirer wrote.
In 2015, Buzzard confided in Shirer that he was seeking help for alcoholism.
“He confessed to drinking at the office during the day and that he had an alcohol problem,” Shirer wrote in her tort claim. “I didn’t report his confession to anyone out of loyalty to my boss and for the fact that he was taking action to correct the problem.”
According to the tort claim, Shirer knew about the gun as early as 2012. She reported to Roewe, the presiding judge at the time, that she found a handgun in Buzzard’s desk drawer, but didn’t bring the complaint further because she didn’t feel it was her place.
“When I found the gun, I was really upset because I thought, ‘OK, why would a judge have it in his office?’” Shirer said. “I wasn’t going through drawers other than I opened up a desk drawer to find a pen. It could have fallen into the wrong hands.”
Roewe confronted Buzzard about the gun. Buzzard said he and the senior judge had a difference in opinion about the appropriateness of him bringing a gun to work.
“I didn’t think it was appropriate for him to have a firearm in the Law and Justice Center,” Roewe told The Chronicle. “I served 24 years in that building. I had no concerns for security. I think most people with handguns are more dangerous than people they’re trying to defend themselves from.”
Buzzard said the gun is now kept in a safe at the courthouse and disputes that it ever could have fallen into the wrong hands. He said he believes Roewe hadn’t read the relevant statute, and said the law and his authority as a judge allow him to bring it to the courthouse.
“The general rule is the law prohibits firearms in that building unless you’re law enforcement or security,” he said. Buzzard interprets the law to include himself as security.
He asked The Chronicle to exercise discretion in publishing information about the gun, saying it undermined its use as a security measure.
In the past, Buzzard has told the Board of Lewis County Commissioners of his concerns about safety at Morton District Court, where Lewis County District Court judges travel for hearings, saying he felt the need to carry a gun in that situation.
However, last week Buzzard told The Chronicle he hasn’t traveled to Morton for court in seven years.
“I mainly have my gun to walk from the parking lot to the building,” he said. “I don’t take it on the bench. I’m not roaming the halls with it.”
Buzzard did not provide details about where he kept the gun during court dates in Morton, but reiterated that the gun was always secure and is legal. When asked if he believed having the gun and alcohol together was potentially unsafe, he said, “Absolutely.”
“The connection of course is the issue,” he said.
In unrelated claims against the county, former Superior Court Judge Nelson Hunt was accused of sexually harassing former Lewis County Drug Court manager Jennifer Soper for nine years in a claim settled by the county’s insurance for $350,000 in 2017. The county was also accused of unfairly terminating Soper and failing to respond to her concerns about her safety.
Hunt filed a request for an injunction last month challenging the release of a portion of Soper’s tort claim and an unfiled lawsuit, saying the portions of the two documents contained personal medical information. A Cowlitz County Superior Court judge ordered the release of the documents with the portions in question redacted, and is scheduled to rule on the redactions at a hearing next month.
The judge also agreed to attach The Chronicle, which originally requested the document, to the lawsuit at the request of the Lewis County Prosecutor’s Office.
Former Superior Court Judge Richard Brosey has also been accused of workplace harassment in an ongoing lawsuit by former superior court staffer Janet Gordon. Gordon filed a lawsuit which is pending.