Hendricks Superior Judge Robert W. Freese has been suspended from judicial office without pay for 45 days after appointing a friend as a trustee of an estate case he was presiding over and failing to take action when the friend did not fulfill his duties, resulting in a “massive theft.”
Freese’s judicial suspension will take effect July 8 and expire Aug. 22, according to the disciplinary opinion handed down by the Indiana Supreme Court on Tuesday.
The court’s Commission on Judicial Qualifications filed disciplinary charges stemming from two counts of misconduct against Freese in January. The judicial discipline stems from Freese’s longtime friendship with Stephen Scott, “one of his closest friends,” according to the suspension order.
Scott pleaded guilty to federal embezzlement charges in 2017 and was sentenced to 30 months in prison by Indiana Southern District Court Judge Tanya Walton.
Their relationship was such that in 2004, Freese used his line of credit to help Scott buy a home, and together the men executed and recorded a $122,400 mortgage in 2005.
Seventeen days after the mortgage was executed, Freese appointed Scott as trustee over the Herbert Hochreiter Living Trust in one of Freese’s cases. The parties did not object to Scott’s appointment, but Freese did not disclose their financial arrangement.
Then, when Hochreiter died later in 2005, Freese appointed Scott as personal representative of the $2.3 million estate, again failing to disclose the financial arrangement.
Throughout his time as trustee and personal representative, Scott regularly failed to provide the required accounting. When Scott did file a partial, defective accounting in 2009, Freese granted him an extension over the objection of one of the beneficiaries, who believed gold bars were missing from the trust.
Then, in 2010, Scott moved to withdraw as trustee, but the beneficiaries objected to him doing so without filing a completing accounting and tax returns. Scott, however, relocated to Florida and never responded to the objection.
Scott’s counsel then began serving as successor trustee and personal representative, and for roughly the next two years, the former trustee was unresponsive to summonses. Further, the successor trustee reported that the trust checking account had only $8.27 and the savings account had been closed for more than six months. In contrast, Scott’s attorney believed the trust should have held $50,000 to $60,000 in cash.
“Judge Freese ‘took no action or minimal action’ on those reports,” the Supreme Court wrote in the Tuesday opinion. “But while the cases were pending and Scott was living in Florida, he left Scott a phone message stating he was concerned that Scott was behaving bizarrely, and that he ‘would never have thought [Scott] would have stolen anything.’”
Freese eventually ordered Scott to appear in person for a show-cause hearing in fall 2012, but Scott again failed to show up. Thus, Freese entered a nearly $580,000 judgment against his friend, finding $140,550 was disbursed from the trust to Scott’s personal accounts between September 2007 and August 2011, on top of $101,217 in illegitimate wire transfers or cash withdrawals during that time.
Additionally, Freese found $16,800 was transferred from the estate to Scott in January 2010, and the remaining bank balance of $6,517.08 was taken by an unexplained cash withdrawal.
Freese did not refer his findings to local prosecutors or the U.S. attorney, the court wrote.
The stolen funds have not been recovered.
The parties cited no aggravators against Freese, but listed several mitigators, including his “lengthy and distinguished judicial career” and lack of prior discipline. Freese, the former president of the Indiana Judges Association, was also credited for his “active leadership in judicial, legal, and civil-service organizations.”
“They also agree his misconduct was not deliberate or willful and brought him no financial benefit or personal gain, and that the Judge relied heavily on the attorneys to file pleadings in the Trust because it was unsupervised,” the court wrote.
In agreeing to the parties’ recommendation of a 45-day sentence, the justices said such a sanction is “very severe.” Even so, “the Judge’s misconduct ultimately enabled a massive theft.”
“The purpose of judicial discipline is not primarily to punish a judge, but rather to preserve the integrity of an public confidence in the judicial system and, when necessary, safeguard the bench and public from those who are unfit,’” the court wrote. “The sanction must be designed to deter similar misconduct and assure the public that judicial misconduct will not be condone.