House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, and the State Bar of Georgia have agreed to a settlement in the complaint filed against him more than two years ago.
Ralston’s attorneys filed paperwork Wednesday with the State Disciplinary Board at the State Bar to accept a minor reprimand along with an admission that he inadvertently violated two State Bar rules. The Bar, meanwhile, agreed in its own filing to drop more serious charges that Ralston misused client funds and intermingled clients’ money with his own.
Finally, the special master that the Georgia Supreme Court appointed to oversee the case also filed a petition recommending the court approve the settlement. The agreement, and Special Master Jonathan Peter’s recommendation, will next be sent to the Georgia Supreme Court, which has final say in cases of attorney discipline. There is no timetable for the court to rule.
If approved, the settlement would conclude a nearly four-year saga and end with a State Bar review panel issuing a reprimand.
“We are pleased to have made constructive progress toward resolving this matter,” Ralston attorney James Balli said. “Beyond that, I will let the documents filed today speak for themselves.”
A spokeswoman for the State Bar said the organization does not comment on pending litigation.
The settlement has been in the works for months. The motion Ralston’s attorneys, Balli and former Gov. Roy Barnes, filed this week was written in September. State Bar General Counsel Paula Frederick’s response was dated Oct. 14.
Still, the settlement comes less than a week before voters decide whether to amend the state constitution to abolish the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The State Bar now appoints three of the seven members of the commission, which investigates and disciplines judges.
The proposed constitutional amendment, which Ralston supports, would strip the State Bar of its appointments to the commission and give them to lawmakers. If adopted, the Supreme Court would still appoint two members, both of whom must be judges. Ralston, as the House speaker, and the lieutenant governor would each appoint two members. Two of the four must be members of the Bar. The governor would appoint one lawyer to serve as chairman of the commission.
It has been a sensitive topic in the state’s legal community, with many fearing it as an effort to limit the State Bar’s power or enact payback against the commission for previous rulings.
Ralston is accused of violating nine State Bar rules and of allowing his duties as a legislator “to adversely affect his representation” of his client.
In the settlement, Ralston admits he loaned a client money for living expenses and that he was tardy in moving payment from a previous case out of his firm’s escrow account and into his personal account, both violations of rules governing attorney conduct.
The complaint against Ralston stems from 2006, when Paul E. Chernak hired Ralston’s law firm after he was injured in a car accident. Chernak was not at fault.
According to Chernak’s complaint with the State Bar, Ralston became involved in the case in 2008. Chernak filed a lawsuit in 2008 claiming injury and damages from the accident. Chernak accused Ralston of dragging his feet on his lawsuit.
In his order, Peters, the special master, wrote that the parties cooperated to resolve the matter.
“Considering the totality of the situation, including lack of harm to any client or benefit the Ralston,” a review panel reprimand is “the appropriate level of discipline,” Peters wrote.
The State Bar recommended Ralston face public reprimand for violating the rule that prohibits lawyers from advancing money to clients. Ralston’s lawyers argued for a lesser, private punishment. Peters split the difference and recommends the review panel reprimand, which is done in public, but considered less serious.
Frederick, the State Bar’s general counsel, wrote that Ralston should face public discipline.
“As an experienced lawyer (Ralston) should have known that the Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit him from loaning money to a client,” she wrote in the State Bar’s response filed Wednesday.
In their motion, also filed Wednesday, Ralston’s attorneys argue that lesser punishment is appropriate.
“In determining what is necessary to protect and reassure the public in this case, it is appropriate to consider not only the nature of Mr. Ralston’s conduct in this case but also his long years of exemplary service both as a lawyer and a public servant,” Ralston’s attorneys wrote.
Ralston faced a range of outcomes from a dismissal of the complaint to public reprimand to disbarment. While Ralston acknowledged violating two State Bar rules, Balli argued that they were inadvertent.
In a Petition for Voluntary Discipline, filed in June 2015, Balli said the speaker should face no more than “formal admonition,” the lowest level of punishment, or a public reprimand. The review panel reprimand is considered more serious than an admonition, but less serious than a public reprimand.
The State Bar originally disagreed, but over the past year it apparently came to accept Ralston’s explanation.
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