Legal defense for Atlanta judge’s ethics case improper, city says

Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy faces an inquiry by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. WSB-TV

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Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy faces an inquiry by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. WSB-TV

Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson has fired the lawyer representing municipal court Judge Terrinee Gundy, arguing in a letter that the more than $30,000 the city has paid for Gundy’s legal representation in a Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission investigation is improper under state law.

Now Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore is calling on Gundy to repay what the city spent on her legal fees.

“It is a personal issue, and I think the council should inquire or, if nothing else, request respectfully that because it is a personal matter that the city be reimbursed for those legal fees,” Moore told Channel 2 Action News this week.

The Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission can discipline or remove judges it finds have committed ethical breaches in the judiciary.

The commission is looking into complaints about Gundy being late or absent in her courtroom, and also for questionable spending.

On July 12, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 reported that Gundy spent more than $9,000 on gifts, a charitable fundraiser hosted by former Mayor Kasim Reed and luxurious stationery, including gold-seal letterhead.

The money, which had been budgeted for Gundy's courtroom, paid for three "flame of excellence" sculptures made of glass that cost a combined $1,800, one of which was specially engraved with Reed's name; engraved envelopes and other stationery at a cost of $4,156; and $870 in beverage napkins for a party after Reed's annual Masked Ball.

Reed appointed Gundy to the bench in 2013.

Former Atlanta City Attorney Jeremy Berry, who left the city in June, authorized attorney Frank Strickland to work on Gundy’s behalf, though in a manner that appeared intended to keep the work out of the public eye.

Berry’s March 28 letter of engagement with Strickland did not mention Gundy by name. It said Strickland was being hired at $600 an hour, “In the matter of a Judge.”

Strickland’s legal bills refer to work reviewing JQC documents, and meeting with JQC executive director Benjamin F. Easterlin IV.

The AJC and Channel 2 reported that taxpayers were paying for Gundy’s legal defense in the July 12 story about her spending.

In a letter to Strickland dated July 24, Hickson, who replaced Berry, wrote that “upon receipt of this correspondence, the City of Atlanta rescinds its engagement of you and your firm to represent Judge Terrinee Gundy in the investigation by the Georgia Judicial Ethics Commission.”

Hickson wrote that Georgia law only allows the city to pay for employees’ legal representation in civil matters where they may be liable for monetary damages.

Investigations by the Judicial Ethics Commission are regulatory matters that could potentially become criminal matters depending on the commission’s findings.

“In my opinion,” Hickson wrote, “your continued engagement in the matter before the Judicial Qualifications Commission is not a proper expenditure.”

In the same letter, Hickson asked Strickland to submit a final statement for any work for which the city had not yet received an invoice.

A city spokesperson said the city has yet to determine if it will pay the invoice when it comes in.

Strickland did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment. Gundy also did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Our reporting

The AJC and Channel 2 Action News previously reported on questionable spending by Atlanta Municipal Court Judge Terrinee Gundy and raised questions about why the city was paying her legal defense in an ethics case before the state’s judicial watchdog. Atlanta’s city attorney has now determined that taxpayer funding of Gundy’s legal defense was improper and has halted the representation.