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Harding admits to reduced charges

Former 4th District Judge Ray Harding Jr. pleaded guilty to reduced drug possession charges Tuesday, and his fate now rests with one of his former colleagues.

Harding had been charged with two third-degree felony counts of illegal drug possession, which carry a potential term of zero to five years in prison each.

But prosecutors and Harding's defense attorney, Ed Brass, came up with a plea bargain with the ex-judge pleading guilty to two counts of attempted possession or use of a controlled substance — opiates in one count, cocaine in another. These are class A misdemeanors that could fetch a maximum penalty of one year each in the county jail.

Harding stood before 3rd District Judge Timothy Hanson and quietly answered a litany of questions that are standard procedure for anyone entering a plea bargain.

Hanson treated Harding like any other defendant and, among other things, thoroughly explained the details of the law and the rights an individual relinquishes when accepting a plea agreement, despite the fact that Harding, a judge since 1995, undoubtedly knows all these legal intricacies.

"I'm satisfied this plea agreement is in the best interest of all parties," Hanson said. He ordered a presentence report and set April 28 for sentencing.

Hanson also told Harding he has not made up his mind as to what the sentence will be.

Outside the courtroom, Harding briefly addressed a horde of waiting reporters.

"I do take full responsibility for my actions," Harding said. "I'd like to apologize to my family, friends, colleagues on the bench and the citizens of the state for the pain that's been caused by my actions in this matter.

"I have, through the grace of God and a three-month substance-abuse program and other programs in Utah, been able to maintain my sobriety since my arrest on July 13, 2002. For that I am grateful," the former judge said.

"I hope and pray that others who have suffered from the disease of addictions and alcoholism may be able to find hope from the mistakes I've made and the recovery I'm pursuing," Harding said.

Harding, who has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest, resigned from the bench Friday.

Prosecutor Michael Wims said the plea bargain achieved the three goals sought by the Utah Attorney General's Office: that Harding be removed from the bench, that he accept responsibility for what he has done and that he receive criminal sanctions.

Prosecutors are not making any recommendations as far as a jail term but are leaving that to Hanson's discretion.

In a related matter, Judicial Conduct Commission late Monday filed an "order for removal from office" with the Utah Supreme Court recommending that the high court oust Harding from the bench.

The order was based in information that emerged at a closed-door hearing the commission held Feb. 1. It was filed Monday because there is a 15-day period in which Harding could have raised formal objections. "This is just completing the Judicial Conduct Commission's formalities," said Colin Winchester, the commission's executive director. "We did our job and we thought we ought to finish doing our job."

During a meeting before the hearing that included Harding, Brass and Winchester, the three men agreed that a written document containing various facts could be proven by a "preponderance of the evidence." However, signing that document did not signify that Harding necessarily thought the facts were true, Winchester said.

"They were stipulating that we could prove these facts if we would call witnesses and they didn't want to make us do that," Winchester said.