SMITH COUNTY, TX (KLTV) - (Warning: Story contains sexually explicit details)
An East Texas judge is facing serious allegations of explicit sexual behavior online while conducting government business.
Smith County Judge Joel Baker serves as chief judge for Smith County and served as vice chair on the State Commission for Judicial Conduct (SCJC). The accusations come from a woman who asked to remain anonymous and private investigator, Tim McLemee who specializes in digital evidence.
McLemee turned over a thousand explicit social media messages between the woman and Baker's personal social media page. McLemee, a 25-year law enforcement veteran turned investigator, said he took the woman's case at no charge out of curiosity.
"I personally wanted to know. 'Is this our county judge? Is this truly our elected county judge that's doing this?'" McLemee said. "What is he willing to do? How far is he willing to go?"
The woman said Baker sent her a friend request on Facebook last year. She said she's never met the judge and didn't know him personally.
"[Baker] has always been sexual with me, and he's made comments and [at first] I never reacted to them," the woman said. "Then in October when me and my boyfriend broke up is when it got really explicit."
After posting about the breakup on her page, she said she got a private message from Baker.
"He messaged me and said something along the lines like, 'hey how are you. I would love to come drink a glass of wine with you,' is how it started. That's how our initial contact was."
A friend recommended she contact McLemee to verify whether the messages originated from Baker or an imposter. Together, McLemee and the woman put together an aggressive plan to keep accelerating the online relationship.
The time stamps on the Facebook messages coincide with county business hours, taxpayer funded out-of-town conferences and judicial conduct hearings in Austin.
In one message sent on February 10 at 2:37 p.m., Baker explains that he's at a state committee meeting in Austin, looking "at complaints about judges." Dozens of sexually-charged messages follow.
"Had Joel Baker simply said 'I am in a very important court hearing. I cannot talk right now. I will contact you after I get off work today,'" McLemee said. "I would have had the utmost respect for that response."
In addition to the messages, the woman says she received nude photos of Baker exposing his genitals. The woman admits she consented to the sexual conversations and requested the photos, even sending some explicit photos of her own.
"Had she had something in his court or something that he could have been involved in ruling on, and he was engaged in this type of behavior with him, she could have absolutely attempted to blackmail him," McLemee said.
On February 26, Baker posted to his Facebook page: "Friends, there have been strange goings on in social media land...due to either fake or hacked social media accounts...I'm getting off social media for a while and maintaining a low profile."
KLTV repeatedly contacted Judge Baker for a comment on the allegations. After six days of no response, Baker texted KLTV late Monday afternoon denying that he initiated the contact with the woman and denies that he desired to have a relationship with her. Baker claims he was attempting to meet the woman to confront her and find out who was trying to "destroy his family." He also denies sending any explicit videos or photos.
Baker submitted a resignation letter to the SCJC on March 4 saying: "I realize that it is vital that I restructure my life so that I and my family can become whole again. I have suffered a great amount of stress, anxiety, depression, and grief. These issues have affected me and my reaction to all the external pressure has almost caused the destruction of my family."
Of the explicit photos and video provided to KLTV, the background of one matches the hotel room stayed in by Baker during the SCJC meeting in Austin. Another photo taken from a vehicle shows characteristics matching the steering wheel and interior of Baker's car. This is based on photos taken of Baker's car by KLTV and McLemee.
Judicial Ethics and Conduct
Attorney Lillian Hardwick, a consultant and expert witness in attorney and judicial ethics, reviewed the facts obtained regarding Baker's activity.
Hardwick said the SCJC members will likely look at whether the conduct is considered "sexually inappropriate" for a judge, whether it brings "public discredit to the judiciary," and whether Baker exercised poor judgment in his use of social media.
"I think it would violate some of the canons in the code as well as the over-arching standard in the Texas Constitution," Hardwick said. "The members of the public are not held to that kind of standard because they are not sitting in judgment of other people's arguments and complaints."
Hardwick expects the SCJC will decide to investigate these claims to see if they violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct. In that situation, Baker would be left to defend himself in front of the same panel he has served on since being appointed by the Supreme Court of Texas in 2012.
"Perhaps [if] could be shown...in only one or two instances, was he actually conducting hearings," Hardwick said. "There may have been a recess. He may have been on a lunch break, something like that," Hardwick said.
The SCJC has not commented on Baker's resignation letter. Baker continues to be a member of the SCJC until a replacement is appointed. No civil or criminal charges have been filed against the Smith County judge, who has been elected to three terms since 2006.