Ex-congresswoman faces possible disbarment

Former U.S. Rep. Denise Majette should be disbarred from practicing law because of “inexcusable” conduct involving unsubstantiated legal billings, a special master for the State Bar of Georgia is recommending.

Majette, now a private attorney, is scheduled to challenge the special master’s report Friday before a review panel of the State Bar’s disciplinary board. The panel will hear oral arguments on her case during the State Bar’s spring meeting at the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation.

After deciding Majette’s case, the panel will submit its recommendations to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has the final say on lawyer discipline.

Majette did not return phone calls or emails seeking comment.

A special master is an experienced attorney appointed by the state Supreme Court to oversee an evidentiary hearing in a lawyer discipline case after an initial State Bar investigation finds there was probable cause of an ethics violation.

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Hal Daniel, a past president of the State Bar and the special master in Majette’s case, wrote in a 36-page report that the facts of the case “are unfortunate and disturbing.”

Since Majette’s former client filed a bar complaint in 2010, Majette has characterized the dispute as a disagreement about fees and has refused to accept responsibility for her actions, Daniel wrote. Majette offered no substantive evidence to rebut allegations that she failed to account for fees already paid to her, submitted inaccurate and fraudulent bills to her client, and committed perjury or fraud when filing a court motion seeking fees, the report said.

Majette served as a DeKalb County State Court judge from 1993 until 2002, when she resigned to run for Congress. In 2003, she defeated incumbent Cynthia McKinney in the Democratic primary and won election to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Majette resigned after one term to run for the U.S. Senate and lost to Johnny Isakson in the general election.

In 2008, she sought office again, but lost her bid to unseat state School Superintendent Kathy Cox.

Since 2005, Majette has worked as a part-time attorney and self-employed real estate agent, according to the special master’s report. In 2008, she began having financial difficulties and began asking a number of area lawyers, including attorney John Lawson, for personal loans, the report said.

Instead of giving Majette a loan, Lawson allowed her to assist him with estate litigation on behalf of Kells Rivers Faulkner, the granddaughter of the late Georgia Gov. Eurith Dickinson Rivers, court records show. Lawson, the former mayor of Avondale Estates, had represented Faulkner for more than a decade. He declined to comment Thursday.

Lawson allowed Majette to bill $200 an hour and he was pleased with the quality of her work. From September 2009 through March 2010, Majette was paid $24,500, the report said.

Hearings on the estate litigation were held in March and April 2010, and a judge allowed the lawyers to seek legal fees for their work.

Lawson let Majette draft a motion for fees. She submitted the motion to the court before showing it to Lawson, the report said. Majette’s request for herself: $130,000 for 260 hours of work at $500 an hour.

When Lawson finally read the motion, he was stunned and withdrew the request for legal fees, the report said.

Majette soon began insisting to be compensated. Faulkner paid her $15,000, but also asked for a detailed billing statement before paying anything more, Daniel wrote.

Majette initially submitted a statement with scant details. Eventually, she provided a more detailed statement in support of 180 hours worked on the litigation, the report said. Faulkner reviewed the invoice and challenged some of Majette’s entries.

According to the report, Majette failed to account for the $24,500 in fees she had previously received and reconstructed her time from memory and notes because she failed to keep detailed records.

In September 2010, Majette withdrew as co-counsel and began pursuing legal means to get paid. This included a court motion that Daniel described as “almost bizarre” — a breach of contract action against her former client in the same case in which she represented the client. A judge rejected it.

Majette had agreed to work as co-counsel on the estate litigation at a rate of $200 an hour, and she had an obligation to maintain adequate, contemporaneous time records for the work she wished to bill her client, Daniel wrote.

“She utterly failed to do this and instead manufactured time sheets and invoices,” Daniel said. “This conduct of Majette was inexcusable.”

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