Nevada judge pleads guilty in federal fraud case

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — A longtime Nevada state court judge pleaded guilty Wednesday in a federal fraud case in a plea deal that cost him his elected position and his law license and is expected to get him 27 months in prison.

Steven Jones stood before U.S. District Judge Jennifer Dorsey and acknowledged accepting cash at least once in 2007 in the parking lot of the Family Court in Las Vegas where he was first elected to the bench in 1992.

Jones, 56, also acknowledged abusing his position to vouch for the credibility of his ex-wife's brother, Thomas Cecrle Jr., and a claim that Cecrle was a secret contractor for the federal Department of Homeland Security who could turn small investments into hundreds of millions of dollars by buying and selling water rights in the Southwest.

Prosecutors dropped 19 conspiracy, fraud and money laundering charges in return for Jones' guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Trial had been due to start later this month. Jones could face 33 months in federal prison, but the prosecutors said they'll seek 27 months. He is also expected to face a restitution order.

Dorsey scheduled Jones' sentencing for Jan. 26.

Jones and his attorney, Robert Draskovich, promised the judge they would submit Jones' resignation letters on Wednesday to the state bar and to Gov. Brian Sandoval.

The plea signaled an end to a three-year saga that included Jones' suspension from the bench — at first with his approximately $200,000 salary, and then without — for failing to recuse himself from cases involving a prosecutor who appeared before him while they dated.

The romance became public in October 2011 when a photo was made public showing Jones' hand touching Lisa Ann Willardson's leg beneath the table at a public function. Willardson, who denied the two had an improper relationship, was found dead last Dec. 26 at her home in Henderson. She was 45.

Her death was ruled an accident, caused by a lethal combination of prescription medications.

Cercle, 57, of Henderson, and three other co-defendants — Mark Hansen, Terry Wolfe and Constance Fenton — also took plea deals on Wednesday.

Hansen, 56, of Corvallis, Oregon, and Wolfe, 59, of Henderson, pleaded guilty to one charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Fenton, 70, pleaded guilty to one conspiracy to commit money laundering charge. Each is due for sentencing Jan. 26.

A sixth former co-defendant, Ashlee Martin, 30, of Las Vegas pleaded guilty Aug. 11 to conspiracy to commit money laundering. She was placed in a one-year pretrial diversion program that could get the case against her dismissed.

Federal prosecutors said in the plea agreement that 22 investors lost some $2.6 million in the scheme between 2002 and 2012. Money that was promised to yield high returns was instead used for the defendants' living expenses and gambling.

Draskovich said Jones' resignations made moot another Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline inquiry.

Investigators had begun looking early this year into allegations that Jones associated with ex-felons, improperly handled drug evidence, and failed to disclose a prior intimate relationship with another woman who appeared as a lawyer in his courtroom.

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