GBI investigating fraud allegations against Court of Appeals judge

Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, when he served as a legislator in the state House of Representatives in 2017. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)
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Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer, when he served as a legislator in the state House of Representatives in 2017. (BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM)

The GBI has opened a criminal investigation involving allegations of fraud against Georgia Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer and his dealings with a former client he represented before taking the bench.

The probe stems from accusations made in a lawsuit filed in March by Jim Filhart, a 78-year-old Cartersville man who alleged Coomer took advantage of him at a time when he suffered from diminished capacity. Coomer has steadfastly denied the allegations.

In 2018, Filhart gave two loans totaling $289,000 to a holding company Coomer controlled, and the loans had terms that were extremely unfavorable to Filhart, the lawsuit alleges. Coomer also prepared a will for Filhart that could have given Coomer access to nearly all of Filhart’s estate, the lawsuit says.

The GBI probe comes at the request of District Attorney Rosemary Greene of the Cherokee Judicial Circuit, agency spokeswoman Nelly Miles said. “The investigation is ongoing,” she said.

Greene, whose office has jurisdiction over Bartow County, said she could not comment at this time.

The state Judicial Qualifications Commission has also opened an investigation of Coomer. The agency oversees investigations of complaints against judges and recommends any possible disciplinary action to the state Supreme Court.

Coomer, who ran a private law practice in Cartersville, was appointed to the Appeals Court bench in 2018 by then-Gov. Nathan Deal. At the time, Coomer was serving as majority whip of the state House of Representatives.

On Wednesday, Coomer declined to comment on the GBI investigation. In March, he called Filhart’s allegations “outrageous.”

“I completely and utterly deny the allegations of fraud,” the judge said in a statement to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I can’t deny it strongly enough, because it’s absolutely untrue.”

The lawsuit filed by Filhart says that he loaned $159,000 to Coomer’s holding company in March 2018 with a promise the money would be repaid in a year. Instead, the promissory note drawn up for the loan said it was to be paid off in 30 years, when Filhart would be 106 years old. And the note listed Filhart’s property — not Coomer’s property — as security should the debt not be paid off.

Coomer’s answer to Filhart’s lawsuit describes the property discrepancy as a “scrivener’s error,” a legal term for an unintentional mistake made when writing up a legal document. Coomer also immediately offered to correct the error when it was drawn to his attention, Coomer says in his answer, filed last month in Bartow County Superior Court.

Coomer, through his holding company, borrowed another $130,000 from Filhart in September 2018. This was to be paid off when Filhart would be 84, and this loan was also unsecured, the lawsuit says.

In his statement to the AJC, Coomer said he fulfilled his ethical obligations as a lawyer by advising Filhart to consult other counsel before issuing the loans. Promissory notes attached to Filhart’s lawsuit reflect that, with memos signed by both men.

Coomer has acknowledged drawing up two wills for Filhart and initially making himself executor of the estate.

Filhart made these decisions “on his own volition,” Coomer’s court filing says. It adds that Filhart wanted to replace the executor he had previously lined up because that man had borrowed money from Filhart and not paid it back.

Coomer revised Filhart’s will a second time because he did not want to serve as executor, Coomer’s court filing says.

But Filhart’s lawsuit says Coomer simply made his wife the executor, giving Coomer’s wife the discretion to give “all or nearly all of the entire estate” to her husband.

In his statement to the AJC, Coomer said this happened after he did some legal work for Filhart, who “spent many hours visiting my staff in our office and our family in our home and we became close.”

But Filhart’s lawsuit alleges Coomer should have known Filhart was impaired or unable to make reasonable decisions.

Coomer has disputed that.

“I believe he knew what he was doing when all of these transactions were executed,” he said. “To my knowledge, he was of sound mind at least until 2019, when he first suggested to me that he was somehow impaired.”

Filhart’s attorney, Wright Gammon, declined to comment.

The allegations raised in the lawsuit are serious, said Anne Emanuel, the former associate dean of Georgia State University’s law school, who taught classes on wills and trusts.

“The conduct the complaint describes looks like egregious abuse of the lawyer-client relationship,” she said.