Injury case leaves Atlanta councilman disbarred

A month before city elections, Atlanta councilman H. Lamar Willis has been barred from practicing law by the Georgia Supreme Court because he put an injured child’s $30,000 settlement in a bank account he controlled, in violation of legal ethics.

The disbarment could affect what’s become an increasingly contentious race for Willis’ city-wide seat between the veteran councilman, a key ally of Mayor Kasim Reed, and challenger Andre Dickens, whose supporters include ex-mayor Shirley Franklin.

The Supreme Court court said Willis violated a number of professional conduct rules. The most serious: Following a 2009 personal injury lawsuit Willis filed in Gwinnett County Superior Court, he put settlement money into a personal or business bank account ather than distributing it to his client, a child who’d been hurt when a fence fell.

In a press conference Monday, Willis accepted responsibility for an “unfortunate administrative error.” He has previously said he made mistakes while battling depression during a divorce.

“Two years ago, during a time when I was facing tremendous personal challenges, I made a grievous professional error. I acknowledge that error, I apologized for it … and I accept the repercussions of that error,” he said.

Willis was never charged with any crime and said he will seek reinstatement. Willis also said his previous emotional struggles are behind him and do not affect his work as a councilman.

“The issue I dealt with is an issue, that prayerfully, only happens once in a lifetime,” he said.

When Willis failed to distribute the settlement money, a Clayton County Probate Court judge ordered the defendants in the fence injury case to pay up again, this time directly paying a lawyer overseeing the child’s financial affairs. The defendants included Flipper Temple Associates, an apartment company in Atlanta; its parent IRPC Inc.; and SHNIR Apartment Management Corp., parties represented by Atlanta lawyer Elizabeth Jones Satterfield.

The judge then directed the defendants to collect those funds from Willis.

According to court records, Willis’s bank reversed the $30,000 deposit back to the defendants, but Willis no longer had sufficient funds in his account to cover the draft. The State Bar instructed Willis to pay $30,000 to the Probate Court so that the courts would distribute the funds to the owed parties.

Willis said this week he did pay the $30,000 to the Probate Court, noting the defendants had already been reimbursed when the bank reversed the original deposit.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court said Willis failed to reimburse the defendants. Willis refuted that Monday.

The Supreme Court acted after an investigation by a court-appointed lawyer and a recommendation by a State Bar of Georgia review panel that Willis be disbarred. The ruling also noted that Willis failed to answer the formal complaint filed against him by the State Bar. Willis has been a member of the State Bar since 2006 and a member of the Atlanta City Council since 2002.

“Having reviewed the record, we agree with the review panel that the facts in this case demonstrate Willis’s extreme disregard of his duty to safeguard the property of a client, which undermines the public trust,” the opinion said.

The Supreme Court, the final authority on legal discipline cases, has disbarred about a dozen lawyers during the current fiscal year so far. It disbarred 28 in 2012-13.

Willis’s disbarment, while unrelated to city affairs, hands his council seat opponent a potentially damaging campaign issue, Georgia State University political science professor Steve Anthony said.

“Too far out, or too close, reduces the impact,” he said. “But 20, 30 or 40 days is right in the sweet spot of having enough time to (harm his chances), but not enough time for people to forget about it.”

Anthony said the disbarment gives Dickens, a little-known Georgia Tech administrator, “something tangible to point to,” in questioning Willis’ fitness for public office, “which gives it a lot more credence.”

Dickens’ camp seized on that opportunity Monday, noting that Willis was also in hot water in recent years for failing to properly register a nonprofit that raised money for student scholarships. Willis was fined $25,000 in 2009 by state officials for that violation.

”It is abundantly clear that Mr. Willis operates without any ethical boundaries or even the bare minimum of care or concern for others,” the Dickens campaign said. “…We believe that people who have been barred from practicing law in the State of Georgia for unethical and immoral behavior should not be allowed to serve in a lawmaking capacity.”

The race toward the Nov. 5th election has so far has been marked by jabs, an anti-Willis website created by the Dickens camp, and anonymous political robocalls, including one attacking Franklin’s endorsement of Dickens and others for the Atlanta Board of Education.

Franklin’s son, Cabral, runs Dickens’ campaign.

According to the June 30 campaign finance filing, Dickens had $55,000 in cash on hand, while Willis had a little more than $16,000. Reed has been helping Willis raise money, hosting an event last week with a suggested donation of $500. Neither candidate’s third quarter campaign finance report was available Monday.

The mayor was traveling Monday, but in a statement said Willis was a “strong and capable member” of the council.

“It is unfortunate that he has made significant mistakes in his private law practice during a very difficult time in his personal life. While I have not reviewed the decision, I respect the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court on this matter,” Reed said in the statement.

In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year, Willis cited his divorce as a distraction that partly caused his legal problems. In Monday’s opinion, the Supreme Court noted that Willis told the State Bar review panel that his depression left him unable to respond to the complaint.

But Willis during that time remained active in community affairs, “which appears to have taken priority over his obligation to his client and duty to respond to disciplinary matters,” he court said.