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Local News: Friday, January 31, 2003

Judge in tree case slapped with $500,000 fine

By Dave Birkland
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Criminal charges won't be filed against a federal judge for whacking down 120 trees in a Seattle park, but the judge has been slapped with a half-million dollar fine.

Federal Judge Jerome Farris, whose gardener cut 120 trees in Colman Park, agreed to pay Seattle $500,000, City Attorney Tom Carr announced yesterday.

Carr said that any misdemeanor charge filed against Farris, 72, would have resulted in a deferred sentence and a $75 fine.

The substantial settlement is a far greater deterrent, Carr said. The settlement money will be used to restore the park to a condition better than before the trees were cut down, a Seattle parks official said.

Farris was not available yesterday, but his attorney, John Wolfe, said the judge is grateful that the "unfortunate incident" is over.

Wolfe said the judge kept his promise to pay for the damage.

"This was an expensive misunderstanding," Wolfe said.

The city got the case after King County Prosecuting Attorney Norm Maleng declined to file felony charges against Farris, saying there was no malice involved, a requirement for a felony conviction.

Farris, who no longer lives at the home, had previously apologized for the tree cutting, blaming it on a misunderstanding between him and his gardener, Duc Huynh.

The judge said he wanted trees cut down along a fence that bordered the park because they blocked his view of Lake Washington, but he said that Huynh went further.

But Huynh said that Farris was quite specific about the trees he wanted cut and that he had followed the judge's instructions.

Parks officials and neighbors had condemned Maleng's decision not to pursue felony charges.

Mount Baker resident Joyce Moty said at the time that she felt ripped off by the decision, calling it part of "a judicial old boy's club."

One city official had said, anonymously, that the prosecutor's definition of malice was too narrow, pointing out that the law says "malice may be inferred from an act done in willful disregard of the rights of another, or an act wrongfully done without just cause or excuse, or an act of omission of duty betraying a willful disregard of social duty."

Kim Burroughs, president of the Mount Baker Community Club, had said Maleng's decision was "a little weak," but yesterday she said she was pleased that a settlement had been reached.

Burroughs expressed surprise at how large it was.

"That was a pretty stiff fine," she said.

Burroughs said her neighbors also will be pleased to know that the entire settlement will be used to restore the park and not go into the city's general fund.

When Maleng declined to file felony charges against Farris, Ken Bounds, superintendent of Seattle Parks and Recreation, criticized the decision, saying it missed an opportunity to send a strong deterrent message.

Yesterday, Bounds said he was happy with the settlement. He said the money will be used to restore Colman Park to a "better condition than it was before."

Mayor Greg Nickels also was pleased. "This settlement is fair and just. It sends a strong message to those who would damage our parks," he said.

Mark Mead, a senior urban forester for the city, said 600 plants will be used to restore the area and 60 trees will be planted. "We want to regain as much of the canopy as we can," he said.

Money from the settlement also will be used to pay for a summer youth program to help keep the park free of problem vines such as English Ivy, Mead said.

The money will also pay for an irrigation system.

As a senior federal judge, Farris essentially provides part-time service to the courts. Senior judges typically handle about 15 percent of the federal courts' workload each year. Farris now fills in on federal circuit courts around the country.

Dave Birkland: 206-464-2204 or dbirkland@seattletimes.com



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