Judge’s conduct questioned in DeKalb corruption case

DeKalb County prosecutors say Superior Court Judge Cynthia Becker knowingly tipped off defense lawyers before throwing out two convictions in a public corruption case, an action that could end her judicial career if found to be true.

Becker’s contact with the defense — without also informing prosecutors — has been reported to authorities, according to a court filing by the DeKalb district attorney’s office. The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission wouldn’t confirm or deny Friday that it has received a complaint.

Prosecutors suggested in their brief to the Georgia Court of Appeals that Becker’s communication may have influenced the case against Pat Reid and Tony Pope.

Reid, the ex-construction chief for DeKalb schools, and Pope, her former husband and an architect, were found guilty a year ago of manipulating school construction projects for personal gain, but they requested new trials. Reid is serving a 15-year sentence, and Pope got an eight-year sentence.

Pope’s lawyer withdrew his appeal after talking with Becker, clearing the way for her to overturn the jury’s guilty verdicts Oct. 27, prosecutors wrote. The Georgia Court of Appeals then stepped in to put her decision on hold.

Judges are prohibited from engaging in conversations with attorneys on one side of the case, but not the other, except to discuss administrative matters or emergencies, according to the Georgia Code of Judicial Conduct.

“If it deals with anything relating to the substance of the case pending, then that’s inappropriate,” said A. James Elliott, associate dean at the Emory University School of Law. “It would be highly unusual for a judge to call a lawyer and say anything about a pending case. They’re generally very careful about that.”

Ashleigh Merchant, a Marietta defense and appellate attorney, said judges shouldn’t give either side a heads-up before issuing an order.

“That’s kind of a big deal,” she said. “Somehow Pope’s attorney got tipped off that they needed to withdraw the notice of appeal. When they withdrew that notice, it gave jurisdiction back to the trial court.”

Becker and Pope’s attorney, John Petrey, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment Friday.

Reid’s attorney, Tony Axam, said he was made aware that Becker was going to sign an order, but she didn’t discuss key facts of the case. Becker wanted to know where Reid was incarcerated, Axam said.

“Lawyers talk to judges all the time,” Axam said. “I don’t know of anything the judge did that was inappropriate in her conversations with lawyers in this case.”

Ken Hodges, a former Dougherty County district attorney, said he doesn’t see a problem with Becker’s contact as long as she didn’t discuss the merits of the case or give advice.

“She just informed him what she was going to do. If that is in fact the truth, then she didn’t do anything wrong,” said Hodges, who is now in private practice. “If she said, ‘Y’all might want to take this action,’ … that would be improper.”

Becker sought to reverse the guilty verdicts against Reid and Pope because she said she didn’t find the testimony of former DeKalb schools Superintendent Crawford Lewis to be truthful.

Lewis had reached a plea deal with prosecutors to testify against Reid and Pope in exchange for a sentence of 12 months on probation. Instead, Becker decided to sentence Lewis to 12 months in jail.

The Court of Appeals overturned Lewis’ jail sentence Oct. 23, and Becker then dismissed the convictions of Reid and Pope, ordering that they receive new trials.

DeKalb prosecutors made an emergency appeal to halt Becker’s action, and the Court of Appeals agreed to do so last week.

The Court of Appeals will decide the case in the coming days or weeks.

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