It wasn’t long ago that DeKalb District Attorney Robert James was crusading against government corruption and notching convictions.
So, when former DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson was indicted for theft by conversion, who did he call?
Naturally, defense attorney Robert James.
A lot can change in a year.
James switched sides after losing his re-election bid, becoming a criminal defense lawyer who’s now trying to exonerate Watson rather than investigating him for potential wrongdoing.
The two never faced off in a courtroom. No charges were ever brought against Watson, who often found himself under scrutiny — voting to award $1.5 million in contracts to his employer, spending public money to build a website where people could donate to his political campaign and billing the county nearly $5,000 for cellphone charges over three years.
James was hired when Watson was accused this week of pocketing $3,000 in travel advances for trips he never took. James said he doesn't have a conflict of interest because he only learned about the latest allegations against Watson from news reports this year, after leaving the district attorney's office Dec. 31.
"There's nothing awkward about me representing someone that's been accused in a criminal proceeding," said James, a partner with the Buckhead firm of Morriss, Shim & James. "I don't know that my time as district attorney has any bearing on what we're doing, other than that I'm intimately familiar with the criminal justice system and with DeKalb."
It’s commonplace for prosecutors to leave government work and go into criminal defense.
The difference in James’ case is that only six months passed before he decided to represent a member of the scandal-plagued government he previously targeted.
James won more than 40 public corruption convictions during his time as district attorney, capped by CEO Burrell Ellis'. That conviction was later thrown out by the Georgia Supreme Court.
Musa Ghanayem, a criminal defense and legal ethics attorney in DeKalb, questioned James’ decision to represent Watson but said doing so probably isn’t unethical.
"There's no doubt that there's an appearance of impropriety," said Ghanayem, who supported District Attorney Sherry Boston's successful election campaign against James. "It might not be best for your client if someone thinks there's something shady going on, even if there's not something shady going on."
DeKalb Ethics Officer Stacey Kalberman said she doesn't see a problem with James' representation of Watson.
“Lots of prosecutors go out and become criminal defense lawyers,” she said. “They’re switching sides all the time.”
Defense attorney J. Tom Morgan, who was DeKalb’s district attorney for 12 years, said the criminal justice system would be better off if more lawyers worked on both sides of the law, understanding both victims and the accused. He said James’ case isn’t peculiar among lawyers.
“We’re hired to defend cases. If there’s not an ethical prohibition, you go in and do your job to the best of your ability,” Morgan said.
James said he just took Watson’s case and needs to review the evidence before deciding how to proceed.
After Channel 2 Action News reported earlier this year about Watson's travel advances, he reimbursed the $3,586 he had received early in 2016 for government trips to Chicago and Savannah. But county policy required unused travel advances to be returned to the county immediately, according to the District Attorney's Office.
Mark Niesse covers voting rights and elections for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He also reports on the Georgia House of Representatives and government. He has been a reporter at the AJC since 2013 following a decade at The Associated Press in Atlanta, Honolulu and Montgomery, Ala.