Legal defense for Atlanta judge’s ethics case climbs to $56K

City Council president says Judge Gundy should pay the money back.

The city authorized spending tax money to defend a judge facing a state ethics violation, but fired the lawyer.

Legal representation of Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy, which the city of Atlanta now says was improper, will nonetheless cost taxpayers $56,000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have learned.

The last of Gundy attorney Frank Strickland's legal invoices were submitted to the city's Law Department on Aug. 6 — two weeks after City Attorney Nina Hickson wrote a letter to Strickland and Gundy informing them that it was improper under state law to use public money to pay for the private legal matter.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy is under investigation by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. WSB-TV

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Gundy, who was appointed to the court in 2013 by former Mayor Kasim Reed, is under investigation by the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission, related to allegations of improper spending and being late or absent in her courtroom.

The JQC can discipline or remove judges it finds have committed ethical breaches.

Hickson’s letter doesn’t say why the billing is improper, but a clause in the Georgia Constitution prohibits government from giving gifts, also known as gratuities, to individuals without the public receiving a substantial benefit in return.

A recent investigation by an outside law firm found that $800,000 in end-of-year bonuses handed out by Reed in December violated the gratuities clause.

Neither Strickland nor Gundy returned messages from the AJC and Channel 2 seeking comment.

Felicia Moore, president of the Atlanta City Council, said the spending was inappropriate and City Council should ask for repayment.

“That’s an individual conduct issue that you have to pay on your own,” Moore said. “It should have never been authorized in the first place. If she doesn’t honor the request to pay back the money, we’ll have to consult with the City Attorney to see if there’s anything else we can do.”

Moore acknowledged that there may be no legal recourse to force repayment, since it was authorized by Jeremy Berry, a Reed appointee from 2017 who left the city in June.

Former Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry told the AJC that the city intentionally concealed legal work related to the bribery investigation in an unrelated case to prevent employees from finding out if they were targets. WSB-TV

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Hickson's letter asked Strickland to submit an invoice for any unpaid work through Aug. 3. Hickson wrote that letter two weeks after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News first reported that public money was being used for Gundy's defense.

Berry approved his department’s coverage of the legal bills in a March 28 letter of engagement with Strickland that did not mention Gundy by name. The letter said Strickland was being hired at $600 an hour, “In the matter of a Judge.”

The AJC and Channel 2 reported earlier this month that Strickland’s initial billing in the case exceeded $30,000, but learned that the city subsequently received a $5,000 credit toward those invoices.

The firm’s latest invoice for$36,942 covers all of July, and says Strickland worked 47.7 hours on the case. Two other members of his firm also logged time at $450 and $130 an hour. The majority of the work related to writing a response to the JQC complaint.

When the AJC and Channel 2 first reported on taxpayers covering Gundy's legal defense, the media outlets also found that Gundy had spent thousands in public money on lavish gifts, a party hosted by former Mayor Kasim Reed and luxurious stationery, including gold-seal letterhead.

The spending, which came from her courtroom budget, included three “flame of excellence” sculptures made of glass that cost a combined $1,800.

One of those sculptures was engraved for Reed.

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