Two women have filed complaints with the State Bar of Georgia accusing House Speaker David Ralston of misleading judges when he used his legislative privileges to delay hearings for clients of his legal practice.
On several occasions when the powerful lawmaker cited his “legislative duties and obligations” to keep criminal cases from moving forward, he was actually campaigning, according to the complaints obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
In 2015 Ralston used legislative leave to put off a pre-trial conference in a domestic violence case. But he then attended a golf tournament fundraiser for himself in a North Georgia mountain resort, with a supporter presenting him with a $289 box of cigars, campaign finance records show. A listing on the Medical Association of Georgia’s website described it as an all-day event with a suggested minimum donation of $500.
A month later Ralston bowed out of another court appearance in the case, telling a judge by letter, “My duties and obligations will require that I be elsewhere each and every date during that week.” But according to a South Georgia newspaper article from 2015, on the date of the scheduled pre-trial conference Ralston was at a fundraiser for a GOP House colleague, Mike Cheokas, at a Best Western hotel in Americus.
Asked about the new allegations on Monday, Ralston referred the AJC to a private attorney, James Balli. In an email, Balli called the accusations “either absolutely false, incorrect or misleading by omission.”
The bar complaints, both filed by women who say Ralston finagled unfair advantages for the men charged with shattering their lives, accuse him of violating bar rules about honesty before courts, purposefully stalling cases, and being unfair to opposing parties. The complaints also accuse him of violating a state law against making false statements to a government body.
“He’s out there promoting himself, and leaving my case just hanging, like it’s nothing, like it’s no big deal,” said Jydon Carpenter, whose ex-fiancé is charged with choking, biting and head-butting her in 2013, a case Ralston delayed at least seven times. “I mean, he has totally abused and misused his authority and position as speaker of the House to manipulate people and situations and court cases to get what he wants for his client.”
Carpenter and Amanda Mosher both sent their written grievances last week to the state bar, which confirmed receiving Mosher’s already but not Carpenter’s.
Mosher has been an outspoken critic of Ralston for years, after he filed for 13 delays in the vehicular homicide case of the man who killed her husband and 4-year-old daughter. The case ended in a plea that gave the man a year on probation and a $1,000 fine.
Her complaint cites instances where Ralston invoked legislative leave in the case, but campaign finance records place him at political dinners and fundraisers around the times of nixed hearings and trial dates.
She said Monday that she was livid to hear that that Ralston’s private attorney told Channel 2 Action News last week that her complaint has no merit. Balli told the AJC that the former Gilmer County district attorney delayed the case against the driver for several years before Ralston even entered the case.
“Any mother who has to stand over her daughter and watch her daughter die,” Mosher told the AJC, “and has to wait eight years for justice, I deserve every merit, and everything about my bar complaint is facts.”
Mosher said she filed a bar grievance against Ralston in 2013 but didn’t pursue it after Ralston filed a rebuttal.
Carpenter said she had given up hope that the case against her ex-fiancé, David Shell, would ever move forward.
But after an investigation by the AJC and Channel 2 earlier this year revealed Ralston’s extensive case delays, she and other alleged victims have been networking with activists who say they want to hold the speaker accountable. The two women had help assembling their complaints from three attorneys working pro bono, as well as Derek Somerville, the ex-FBI agent who said his research in eight North Georgia courthouses documented 966 delays in 266 civil and criminal cases since Ralston became House speaker.
Balli, Ralston’s attorney, called the bar complaints “a coordinated effort by persons who care not one iota about either alleged grievant, but simply have a political vendetta against the Speaker.”
Both of the women’s complaints hinge on a legal assertion that’s never been tested in the courts: that the legislative leave law doesn’t cover campaign activities. On some of the dates cited in Carpenter’s letter to the bar, Ralston filed for per diem payments with the state, indicating he was doing official business at some point during the day.
But no per diem payments correspond to the dates of the golf tournament or event in Americus. Catherine Bernard, one of the attorneys helping the two women, said that even a generous view of what constitutes “duties with the General Assembly” wouldn’t cover fundraising to get re-elected.
“On days when he is certifying to the court that his legislative duties require him to be elsewhere, his campaign finance disclosures show that he’s out renting storage units, meeting with campaign consultants, having dinner with lobbyists and consultants,” Bernard said.
Ralston has faced a previous bar complaint that led to a public reprimand. After a former client complained that the speaker repeatedly delayed his auto accident injury case using legislative leave, an investigation accused Ralston of loaning the client money for living expenses.
In a 2016 settlement, Ralston admitted that he inadvertently violated two State Bar rules. The Bar dropped more serious charges.
Carpenter’s complaint takes issue with something Ralston recently has done in her case. Last month, he filed court documents seeking to drop Shell as a client. Bernard said that could tie up the case even further because Ralston didn’t give the man proper notice.
Shell was quoted in the AJC’s first story on the delays saying he hired Ralston to stall and weaken the case against him. “That’s why I gave him 20,000 bucks,” Shell said. “He’s worth every penny of it.”
Asked about dropping the case, Ralston told WSB Radio and Channel 2 in an April interview that “one of the things in any attorney-client relationship that is needed is trust and is the ability to know that you are speaking truth one to another, and sometimes if that breaks down you have to seek other avenues.”
Shell declined to comment and hung up on an AJC reporter.
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Staff Writer Chris Joyner contributed to this story.