They wanted my head on the wall, ex-Judge Becker says

In December 2013, then-Judge Cynthia Becker hands down sentencing for former schools superintendent Crawford Lewis. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM



In December 2013, then-Judge Cynthia Becker hands down sentencing for former schools superintendent Crawford Lewis. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

For a while the bizarre prospect loomed that former trial Judge Cynthia Becker might spend more time in jail than Crawford Lewis, the accused corrupt ex-school chief.

It wouldn’t have been hard because Lewis, DeKalb County’s semi-convicted former school superintendent, has spent only four days behind bars. Becker faced a whole lot more than that after getting charged with lying to state investigators who were looking into her handling of the Lewis case.

It’s a strange, sordid saga with roots in one of DeKalb’s corruption cases and demonstrates one of two things, depending who you’re talking to:

  1. judges are not immune to misstatement.
  2. they have become targets for ambitious investigators who want prized heads in their trophy room.

Becker no longer faces criminal charges but contends that her downfall was “calculated.”

“There’s a number of people who gained by this,” she said in an interview Tuesday, a day after a special prosecutor dropped charges. She said the conspirators — who she left unidentified — want to send out a message for judges to “just go along.

“What happened to me can happen to any judge who makes unpopular decisions,” she said.

But Lester Tate, the head of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the board whose investigation led to Becker’s criminal charges, says he prefers not to have interviews with judges ending up with arrests. That would cause judges to lawyer up during discussions with the JQC and make it harder for the commission to persuade them to behave.

But let us digress.

In 2013 Pat Reid, the schools’ former chief operating officer, and Reid’s ex-husband, Tony Pope, an architect, were convicted of racketeering and theft in a scheme to steal construction funds.

Judge Becker hammered them in sentencing, giving Reid 15 years and Pope eight. Then she turned to Lewis, who initially faced 65 years until he got a cakey deal to testify against his co-defendants. He had pleaded to a misdemeanor charge, obstruction of justice.

But instead of giving the disgraced Lewis the 12 months of probation he expected, Becker had him slapped in cuffs and marched off to jail to serve 12 months. She said he broke his deal by not testifying truthfully.

A different kind of school for Lewis?

The attorney for the now-freaked-out Lewis later flooded Becker’s office with calls and emails asking for bond. One might assume time behind bars would be tough for a longtime school administrator. But he certainly would have encountered scores of mis-educated former students who could have schooled him on the ways of DeKalb jail.

Prosecutors agreed to the bond for Lewis because they don’t want defendants who turn snitch worrying that their deals might fall apart. Even Pope’s lawyers did not oppose bond, although attorney J. Tom Morgan said he caught Lewis in so many lies the jury started laughing when he displayed the ex-superintendent’s photo in closing arguments.

Becker and her staff hemmed and hawed when communicating with Lewis’s attorney, finally saying the matter was set for the following week. She was going out of town for the Army-Navy football game.

I figure Becker wanted Lewis to get at least a brief taste of what his co-defendants were getting. If he gets out on bond, God knows if he’ll ever again wear a jail jumpsuit. Four days later, the appeals court gave Lewis bond, and his case remains unresolved.

Becker then moved to free Reid and Pope, reasoning that if Lewis was lying, then their convictions would be tenuous. That did not fly on appeal and they remain in the slammer.

It was chocolate-covered strawberries, thank you

The following year, in September 2014, Becker got called in to talk to the JQC. After the greetings were completed, one of the commission members started in on the Lewis case. The transcript shows she was caught off guard, saying she thought she was coming in to talk about a complaint that she had been rude to people. She said, “I am happy to talk about it.” But it’s clear she was not.

Still, she went on a soliloquy about the case, talking about about P-cards (the county charge cards some officials like to abuse), even mentioning that Lewis was charged with using his card to go to a Ritz Carlton with his mistress and ordering champagne and strawberries. (Actually, the judge misspoke — they were chocolate-covered strawberries.)

JQC members, especially Tate, then bore in on her, saying that Lewis, who had a misdemeanor case (remember the cakey deal), was entitled to bond. At least five times, in some testy exchanges with Tate, Becker said she was not presented a request for bond.

The emails from 10 months earlier showed otherwise.

Becker contends Lewis never filed a notice of appeal, so he should not have been considered for bond. So, in essence, the whole basis of why she was being questioned may not have been correct. However, Becker did not bring that up in the testy face-to-face with Tate, who is a Cartersville defense lawyer by day.

No one expects the Spanish Inquisition

One would assume that Becker would have clearly remembered the details of such an important case. But she said the JQC did a bait-and-switch ambush, hitting her up for details from a case not fresh in her mind. "My mistake was that I thought it was a quote informal, let's-just-talk-about-things meeting," she said.

“The JQC wasn’t supposed to be the Spanish Inquisition,” said defense attorney Steve Sadow, digging into his memory banks for some classic Monty Python. “It was designed to be an investigatory body, but that’s what it’s become.”

Tate does not want that to happen. “The JQC has never sought prosecution of a judge except in egregious cases,” he said, referring to a case where a Georgia judge was involved in a plot to plant drugs on a woman making harassment accusations against him.

Becker’s case is not that.

Last week, the special prosecutor brought into the case by the state, Parks White, a D.A. from north Georgia, pressed to bring six felony counts (four of them making false statements to the JQC) against Becker. On Monday, the charges were dropped when she agreed never to seek judicial office again and apologized for making “erroneous statements.”

Tate said the case “tumbled out of control.” He said the JQC board did not call in a special prosecutor to dig into criminal charges.

“Getting a judge to come in and talk is a very important aspect of our work; we don’t want to chill judges from coming in to talk,” Tate said. “The criminal process has wormed its way into our procedure and has caused us problems.”

Becker explains why she cut a deal

Both Becker and Tate seem to be in agreement that judges should be able to come into the JQC and talk informally to settle issues, of which, in recent years, there seem to be many.

Becker said she relented and cut a deal so that she wouldn’t be booked and have her mugshot widely distributed, not with a daughter starting law school and a son at West Point. She is now retired, recently married and living in Cherokee County, although she mentioned that her former home, the one seemingly overrun with corruption and ethics investigations, is getting a raw deal.

“DeKalb County doesn’t deserve all this rotten-to-the-core (publicity). There’s a lot of good people in DeKalb. And I’m one of them.”