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Lawsuit against fired probation officer claims sexual abuse, state complacency

Michelle Theriault Boots
A lawsuit alleges James Stanton for years groped, threatened, harassed, extorted and sexually assaulted women he was supposed to supervise in a therapeutic court program while his state of Alaska supervisors looked the other way. APD

Each of the 14 women suing their former state of Alaska probation officer has a story about the moment visits to James Stanton’s basement office at the downtown courthouse turned bad.

One woman said he fondled her in front of her toddler.

A second knew something was amiss when Stanton asked her if she “liked sex with older men.”

A third said she stopped wearing dresses to her appointments to discourage her probation officer from reaching up them. She wore snug jeans instead, hoping he would have trouble fumbling with the buttons.

Stanton, a longtime state employee and Army veteran, at first seemed harmless enough. He wore a neatly-trimmed mustache and filled his office with pig-themed tchotchkes.

But his colleagues noticed that the probation officer with the Alcohol Safety Action Program sought a caseload “lopsided” with troubled female clients, according to a civil lawsuit filed against Stanton.

Some of the women were addicted to crack or methamphetamine, according to the court filings. They lived in homeless shelters and halfway houses. Some had children on the verge of being taken into foster care. Many had a history of childhood sexual abuse. Some had worked as prostitutes.

All had opted into ASAP, a part of the state’s praised “wellness court,” which seeks to treat the addictions of defendants while resolving the criminal charges against them.

For the women, wellness court offered a chance to get sober and start over.

But for years, Stanton sexually and financially exploited vulnerable women on his caseload, using his legal authority to threaten them with jail or loss of custody of their children if they failed to submit to his demands, according to lawsuits filed on behalf of 14 women who say they were victimized between 2003 and 2009.

Attorneys from four Anchorage law firms are representing various victims, who are named as Jane Doe or by their initials in the filings. Their individual suits have been consolidated by the court for pre-trial purposes. A trial date is set for next summer.

In some cases, Stanton pressured women for sexual favors or cash in exchange for allowing his clients to use drugs or miss court dates, the lawsuits assert. In others he is alleged to have threatened to lie about women who were abiding by the rules of the program, according to the suits.

Stanton, 57, has not been convicted of a sex offense in criminal court.

In 2010, he was arrested on criminal coercion, harassment and sexual assault charges after he was caught taking money from a female probationer who wore a wire for police. Anchorage police said at the time that Stanton first fondled the woman in his office. She then told him she’d rather pay him than have sex with him and gave him $200, which was later found on his desk.

In 2012, an Anchorage judge dismissed the sexual assault charges, saying if the women agreed to sex to avoid or hide drug tests the acts were, by law, consensual.

Documents filed in the civil lawsuit allege long-running, brazen abuses.

Stanton, court filings say, kept condoms in his desk drawer. He forced one woman, already a victim of sexual abuse, to perform oral sex on him in a courthouse bathroom. He swapped out urinalysis tests to allow women to keep smoking crack or using meth. He hit Native women up for money when he knew their regional corporation dividends were due. One woman said he raped her on his office desk. Another woman was offered the chance to graduate from the wellness program early in exchange for nude photographs of herself.

The same woman said Stanton passed her notes in court.

“You look hot,” one said.

The lawsuit claims Stanton repeatedly intimidated the women to keep them from seeking help, telling them no one would believe drug-addicted felons such as themselves.

All of this was possible because Stanton’s state of Alaska supervisors allowed him to operate unchecked for the better part of a decade in an atmosphere where his “repeated, extreme, very public sexual commentary” in the office was written off with the explanation “that’s just Jim,” D. Jan Duffy, a San Francisco employment law expert, wrote in an analysis filed by the plaintiffs.

“Frankly, the State of Alaska’s failure to ... protect individuals as vulnerable as the (wellness court) participants from harms as serious as those involved here is virtually unprecedented in my experience,” Duffy wrote.

An Anchorage forensic psychologist also hired by the plaintiffs put it another way: “It is clear to me that probation officer James Stanton engaged in a systematic pattern of bribery, grooming, sexual harassment and actual sexual assaults against vulnerable probationers in return for manipulating or otherwise minimizing or covering up probationers’ positive drug tests,” David Sperbeck wrote in an initial analysis of Stanton submitted to the court July 21. “(Stanton) should never have been placed in a position of trust and legal authority over powerless and defenseless female clients.”

The lawsuits name the State of Alaska, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Corrections as co-defendants along with Stanton. While Stanton worked as a correctional officer and briefly as a juvenile probation officer in the 1990s and early 2000s for the Department of Corrections, he was employed by Health and Social Services in his position as a wellness court probation officer.

State attorneys involved in the case declined to comment on the record, citing ongoing litigation.

But motions filed by the state say the lawsuit should be thrown out because the timeframe the abuse happened is outside the two-year statute of limitations for civil lawsuits in Alaska. A judge has not ruled on the issue.

When reached at his Wasilla home, Stanton said he had no comment on the allegations against him.

He is acting as his own attorney himself in the civil lawsuits.

A long career with the state

James Stanton was born in Niagara Falls, New York and served in the Army for 21 years before he was honorably discharged, according to personnel and probation records included in lawsuit filings.

In 1994, he got his first state job in Alaska, as a correctional officer in Fairbanks.

He held a variety of jobs with the Department of Corrections before becoming a juvenile probation officer in 2001.

Just months into his position he was fired for leaking a videotape of a brawl involving teenagers to Channel 2 News without permission, his employment records reveal.

A 10-page long investigation accompanies the decision to fire him. In an email exchange, a supervisor writes that he sees no reason to keep Stanton because “the problems appear to be character and personality based, not a lack of knowledge and that does not bode well for improvement.”

But he was rehired within months, this time as a probation officer and case manager with ASAP.

His official record has few blemishes. When he was fired in 2010, human resources managers found a “thin file” on him, wrote Duffy, the plaintiff’s employment law expert.

But in 2003, a female probationer accused him of sexually harassing her. He told her he would come to her house with “champagne and handcuffs” and talked to her about “bondage and sexual fetishes,” a complaint from the time said.

After an investigation, Stanton's supervisor, Ron Taylor, advised the woman that Stanton had been an employee for a long time and that he had “a really good record,” according to a court filing.

Ron Taylor is now the high-ranking deputy commissioner of re-entry for the Department of Corrections.

While the state claimed that Stanton got “verbal counseling” for the 2003 incident, the employment law expert hired by the plaintiffs found no evidence of a write-up or other disciplinary action.

James Stanton received pay raises in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2007, personnel records show.

Much of the alleged abuse happened between 2006 and 2009.

In 2009, Stanton received a positive performance evaluation, even as he was confronted about tampering with drug test results by a colleague. He got a raise shortly before he was fired in January 2010.

On Jan. 28, 2010, after Stanton’s arrest, two of his supervisors wrote in an email exchange about growing concerns over the scope of his conduct. The names on the emails are redacted, but the title of one supervisor is “manager, prevention and early intervention services.”

“I have a vague memory of a client saying James made inappropriate remarks to her, maybe something about coming to her home at inappropriate times or something,” the email says. “But, it is pretty vague. I don’t recall there being a full investigation. Do you have more memory of how it was resolved?”

Duffy, the employment law expert, said ASAP had no appropriate protocols for reporting or investigating sexual harassment. Even in late 2010, there was no written handbook for ASAP employees, she wrote.

Sperbeck, the psychologist, wrote that the case was “particularly troubling” because “there is nothing to indicate that (Stanton) was being actively or even passively supervised, observed, monitored, mentored or trained.”

“Rather,” he wrote, “owing to his longstanding tenure,” his behavior was “basically accepted within an environment of complacency.”

‘Force’

In 2012, Stanton pleaded guilty to harassment and coercion but saw two felony sexual assault charges against him dismissed.

Anchorage Superior Court Judge Michael Spaan said that evidence showed Stanton had threatened to put a woman in jail or have her children taken away if she didn’t have sex with him, but by Alaska law his actions didn’t meet the legal definition of “force,” a necessary element of a sexual assault charge.

“Until the legislature amends the definition of the word ‘force’ to include acts of non-physical coercion, Stanton’s threats against (the victim) do not fall within the scope of Alaska’s sexual assault statutes,” Spaan wrote in a ruling.

A legal loophole allowed Stanton to escape charges of abusing his power as a sworn law enforcement officer by having sex with someone he was supervising.

Unlike regular probation officers who work for the Department of Corrections, Stanton’s job was under the Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Behavioral Health.

That meant a law that makes sexual contact between a probation officer or correctional officer and someone they are supervising a felony sexual assault due to “abuse of power” did not apply to Stanton.

The policy has since been changed to include wellness court probation officers.

Stanton spent four months of a six-month sentence imposed by Spaan in jail and is now serving his five-year suspended sentence from his Wasilla home. Facebook photos show him riding ATVs and attending a family barbeque. He receives state retirement benefits.

Under the terms of his sentence, if Stanton is successful on probation his conviction can be set aside.

The women who alleged he abused them have fared less well.

Several relapsed on drugs or alcohol after getting sober, Sperbeck wrote.

“(The wellness court) program is designed to help people,” a Jane Doe who didn’t come forward until she read a newspaper article about Stanton in 2013 is quoted as saying in a court filing. “And when I went in there it was supposed to change my life. It was supposed to do a lot of things. And it -- it’s messed me up more, is all it did.”

‘He believed justice had been served’

Now on probation and facing a host of civil claims, Stanton is himself the subject of scrutiny from court mental health clinicians, expert witnesses and his own probation officer.

A mental health clinician who evaluated him for a sex offender treatment program -- ordered by the judge as a condition of probation even though Stanton wasn’t convicted of a sex offense -- said it would be “hard to hold him accountable in treatment” since he had not “been held held accountable in Court.”

“He minimizes the offense against the victims, which essentially continues the assault, mirroring those actions in his office when he told his victims no one would believe them due to their felony convictions,” the clinician wrote.

A probation officer supervising Stanton wrote that he believes his mistake was in having an “affair.” The women suing him were “after the money,” encouraged by an “ambulance chaser” of an attorney, Stanton told the officer.

“Stanton appears to exhibit signs of psychopathy (lack of empathy, poor impulse control and disregard for rules) and his thinking errors need to be consistently addressed,” the probation officer wrote. “Tends to want to portray himself in a positive light, including visions of grandeur.”

Stanton, the officer noted, spoke in a near whisper when talking about the allegations against him and much louder when discussing his military career or job history.

The probation officer also cautioned him to stop communicating with ex-police officer and serial rapist Anthony Rollins, who is serving a lengthy prison sentence for assaulting women while on the job with the Anchorage Police Department.

Stanton, the officer wrote, contrasts his case with Rollins’.

“He said Rollins was sentenced to hundreds of years in jail, so how could he be similar if he only got a (suspended imposition of sentence) and five years probation. He said he was not a threat. (Stanton) said he believed justice had been served in his case.”