Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Benjamin Coker (center), with GBI Special Agent Jared Coleman (right) and Chief Assistant District Attorney Marie Broder (left). (POOL PHOTO BY MAX PELTZ)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Judge accused of ‘egregious misconduct’ in alleged theft of court funds

The state’s judicial watchdog agency on Tuesday accused a state superior court judge of “egregious misconduct” involving the alleged theft of more than $15,000 from the Pike County court’s registry.

Mack Crawford violated the code of judicial conduct by improperly ordering the disbursement of the money to himself, the Judicial Qualifications Commission said in formal charges filed with the state Supreme Court. Even if the money had been his, Crawford failed to follow proper procedures required of attorneys by putting the money into his personal bank account, the JQC said.

In an interview, Crawford strongly denied any wrongdoing and said he has been forthcoming in interviews with investigators. “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” he said.

Crawford, a former state legislator who once headed the state’s public defender system, is already the subject of a GBI investigation over the matter. A judge since 2010, he oversees cases for the Griffin Judicial Circuit, which is comprised of Fayette, Spalding, Pike and Upson counties.

Problems for Crawford arose in March when Pike County Clerk of Court Carolyn Williams told District Attorney Benjamin Coker that Crawford had directed her to write him a $15,672 check out of the court’s registry. (A registry is an account maintained by the clerk in which parties deposit funds during various phases of ongoing litigation.)

Coker then asked the state Attorney General’s Office to review the case, and the AG’s office asked the GBI to get involved.

Superior Court Judge Mack Crawford of the Griffin Judicial Circuit. (From his Facebook page.)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

When this happened, Coker asked Crawford to stop overseeing criminal cases in the Griffin circuit while the investigation was pending. Crawford agreed to do so, Coker said Monday.

The funds in question came from a case in which Crawford served as a private attorney long before he became a judge. In 2002, he represented Dan Mike Clark and Bobbie Whalen, who were living in a Zebulon home that was being foreclosed upon.

To halt the removal proceedings, Crawford filed suit in September 2002 on the couple’s behalf in Pike County Superior Court. He also deposited $15,672 of their money into the court’s registry to redeem the property.

Seven years later, a judge dismissed the case and directed the clerk “to pay the funds held in the registry of this court to the plaintiffs.”

But the money remained in the registry until late last year when Williams, the court clerk, got ready to send the $15,672 to the state Department of Revenue as “abandoned funds,” Coker wrote in his letter to the state AG’s office. But before Williams did that, she asked Crawford to take a look at it, Coker said.

In a handwritten note, Crawford told the clerk to disburse the funds to him, the JQC filing said. He then cashed and used a portion of the check for his personal benefit and deposited the rest in his checking account, the JQC said.

“Although Judge Crawford at one point claimed that at least part of this money was owed to him for his prior representation of (Clark and Whalen), that claim was false,” the JQC said. “The funds either belonged to his clients or were unclaimed property that should have gone to the Georgia Department of Revenue.”

Only after Crawford became aware of the investigation did he send the funds to the revenue department, the JQC said.

The JQC filing also said Crawford fails to schedule hearings promptly and orders in cases sometimes sit pending for years at a time waiting for him to take meaningful action. While these alleged violations are not part of the formal charges against Crawford, the JQC said it reserves the right to pursue them at a later date.

The filing against Crawford is the second disciplinary case brought by the reconfigured state Judicial Qualifications Commission. Until the Legislature changed its structure last year, the JQC’s board members oversaw the investigation of a wayward judge and recommended what punishment a judge should receive.

Under the JQC’s new structure, a seven-member panel oversees the investigation of a judge and, if necessary, approves formal charges. Then, a separate three-member panel hears the case against the judge and recommends whatever punishment it deems to be necessary to the state Supreme Court. Punishment ranges from a reprimand to removal from the bench, and the state high court has the final say.

With charges now filed, Crawford’s case now goes before the so-called hearing panel. Its members are: Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert McBurney, Cobb Police Chief Michael Register and Atlanta employment lawyer Jamala McFadden.

Last month, the Supreme Court approved the hearing panel’s recommendation that Tattnall County Chief Magistrate Judge Eddie Anderson receive a public reprimand. Anderson had improperly inserted himself into a dealership’s repossession of a car from a woman who had missed her payments.

Anderson, who acknowledged wrongdoing, called the car dealer and demanded it return the car to the woman or reimburse her, the court said. When the dealer refused, Anderson then told the woman to file suit against the dealer in his court, which she did.

“Judge Anderson undermined the public integrity and impariality of the judiciary” through his actions, the court said.

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