ATLANTA — In a small city at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains, a former judge is accused of sexually harassing three women who worked for him and creating “an atmosphere of sexual dominance.” Another woman who had a case before him said he propositioned her and orchestrated a scheme to have her arrested on bogus drug charges.
The former judge, Bryant Cochran, resigned in August and denies any involvement in the setup and any inappropriate sexual behavior. The women sued him earlier this month, and criminal investigators are looking into his actions.
Attorney McCracken Poston, who represents the women, said Cochran behaved brazenly, confident that his connections to powerful figures in Chatsworth, the small northwest Georgia city where he worked, would protect him. Cochran, who’s in his early 40s, served one full term as a Murray County magistrate judge and was re-elected by a wide margin last summer even as allegations against him swirled. He stepped down amid an ethics investigation, saying it hurt his ability to be an effective judge.
“History has shown us we run across this personality on occasion, and they’re so detached from reality or legality, but they have enough power to sustain that life for some time,” Poston said.
The women have filed two separate lawsuits, both seeking unspecified damages.
“They believe there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” Cochran’s civil defense attorney Phillip Friduss said.
In April 2012, the woman who didn’t work for Cochran went to the magistrate’s office to provide information for warrants on three people she said had attacked her, according to her lawsuit. Cochran invited her into his chambers alone, even though she’d brought her sister.
While in his office, Cochran asked about her impending divorce and whether she cheated on her husband. The married judge told her he was looking for a mistress he could trust, the lawsuit said.
Cochran told her to come back in a few days later and to wear a dress and no panties, the lawsuit said. He also asked her to send a photo of herself, and she sent him one of her in underwear to get her case moving forward, the lawsuit said.
She never returned to Cochran’s office and never engaged in any sexual activity with him, but he continued to send her suggestive messages, the lawsuit said. When she appeared in court, Cochran was verbally abusive toward her.
In mid-July 2012, the Judicial Qualifications Commission opened an ethics investigation, and the woman was a “critical witness,” commission director Jeff Davis said. That investigation was closed when Cochran resigned.
Attorneys for Cochran and the women have confirmed a grand jury is investigating the former judge’s actions.
The Associated Press does not generally identify alleged victims of sexual assault.
The three women who used to work for Cochran said in their lawsuit that they were also interviewed by the state commission. At least one said Cochran touched her inappropriately, ogled her breasts and made lewd comments. The women were the only people who worked the in same area as Cochran, their lawyer said.
The women also named Murray County in their lawsuit, saying its employment policy required them to report any complaint to their direct supervisor, which in this case was Cochran.
“The actions of Cochran are designed to suppress women in the office, to create an atmosphere of fear, to create an atmosphere of dominance and sexual dominance, and to prevent any complaints to any other outside source,” the lawsuit said.
The women left the magistrate’s office when they couldn’t get along with Cochran’s replacement.
Judicial Qualifications Commission investigators looking into the allegations of sexual misconduct said they discovered evidence that Cochran had pre-signed blank warrants that law enforcement officers could use when he was out of the office.
Cochran resigned Aug. 15. His lawyer at the time, Christopher Townley, put out a statement saying Cochran took full responsibility for the pre-signed warrants and that that was the only reason for his resignation.
Page Pate, a criminal defense lawyer Cochran hired later, said there was nothing criminal about the pre-signed warrants, and that Cochran had signed them for convenience. Cochran resigned because the commission investigation hindered his ability to be an effective judge, Pate said.
“It was also a difficult time for his family,” Pate said. “Even though he denies all of the allegations relating to sexual harassment, those allegations were flying around town, and the rumors and gossip made it difficult for him and his family to deal with on a day-to-day basis.”
Cochran is now working for a friend’s sawmill business, Pate said.
The day before Cochran resigned, the woman who didn’t work for Cochran was in her car with an acquaintance. A sheriff’s deputy pulled them over, saying they failed to dim their headlights for an oncoming car. A sheriff’s captain showed up almost immediately, and the deputy found a metal can containing methamphetamine hidden in the wheel well of the car. The woman and her acquaintance were arrested.
After getting a tip, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents determined the drugs had been planted in the woman’s car. The two officers were fired and both later pleaded guilty to federal obstruction of justice charges. The woman and her acquaintance were cleared of the drug charges against them.
One of the officers has admitted that the tip about the drugs came from Cochran, who called him and others, the lawsuit said.
Pate said Cochran had heard the woman was involved in illegal drugs and let some officers know. There is no evidence Cochran was involved in planting the drugs, Pate said.