Georgia judge enters guilty pleas, resigns

A South Georgia judge pleaded guilty to three felony charges Wednesday and became the state’s eighth jurist to leave office this year after being investigated on allegations of misconduct.

Camden County Probate Judge Shirley Wise pleaded guilty to theft by taking, theft by deception and violation of her oath of office, District Attorney Brian Rickman said.

Wise was sentenced under the First Offender Act to seven years on probation and fined $1,000. She also turned over $5,500 in restitution to the Camden Board of Commissioners and agreed to not seek or accept appointment to public office.

Wise pleaded guilty to theft of vital records fees and to a kickback scheme involving a county services contract, Rickman said. She violated her oath of office by taking in more compensation than she was entitled to receive, the prosecutor said.

The criminal case stemmed from ethics charges filed against Wise in October by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission.

But Wise, a former court clerk who had served as probate judge since 2009, ended the JQC case — and her tenure as judge — with her guilty pleas.

Wise’s lawyer, Jim Stein of St. Marys, said his client decided to plead guilty after looking at the case against her and considering the future costs of a grand jury investigation and lengthy court proceedings.

“She did this for the mitigation of expenses to Camden County and taxpayers,” Stein said. “Judge Wise looked at everything and decided this was the best thing to do.”

The JQC had referred its initial investigative findings against Wise to the state Attorney General’s Office, which then appointed Rickman, the district attorney for the Mountain Judicial Circuit in northeast Georgia, to oversee any possible criminal prosecution.

“The commission’s policy, consistent with our rules, is to refer matters to the appropriate authorities when we find evidence of criminal conduct,” said Jeff Davis, the JQC’s director.

Rickman said the guilty pleas were a good resolution.

“What we were looking for was responsibility and accountability,” the district attorney said. “It lets the office sort of move on by her accepting responsibility. … The office has to be above reproach, and people have to have confidence in the office and the judge.”

Wise is not the only state judge to face a criminal investigation this year.

Prosecutors in Fulton County and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Savannah have overseen separate grand jury probes into allegations of misconduct by Amanda Williams, who was the chief judge for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit when she left office in January. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Atlanta has been investigating Bryant Cochran, who resigned in August as the chief magistrate judge in Murray County.