House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, has hired a private attorney to defend him against charges that as a lawyer he neglected a client and improperly used other clients’ escrow funds to help that client pay for living expenses.
The State Bar of Georgia has asked the state Supreme Court to appoint an investigator, known as a special master, to essentially put Ralston’s behavior on trial. The speaker faces public reprimand or even disbarment if the court rules against him.
James E. Spence Jr., a veteran Decatur attorney who has frequently represented lawyers facing State Bar trouble, will represent Ralston. He could not be reached for comment Friday. But Ralston’s spokesman, Marshall Guest, said Thursday that in the speaker’s 34-plus years as a lawyer “he has shown that he cares very deeply about his clients’ legal rights.”
Spence will square off with Mark F. Dehler of Hiawassee, whom the Supreme Court appointed as special master. Dehler is married to Cathy Cox, a former Democratic secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate who is now president of Young Harris College.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Friday that Ralston is accused of violating nine State Bar rules, including allegations that he misused a state law that allows lawmakers to postpone legal proceedings when legislative business interferes. The law, known as legislative leave, says a member of the General Assembly who is a party to or the attorney in a case “shall be granted a continuance and stay of the case.”
It’s a common practice and is used often. With good reason, said Ed Lindsey, an Atlanta Republican and former House majority whip.
“Every lawyer-legislator has to balance their public duties and private responsibilities,” Lindsey said. “To be successful, it requires a degree of attention, understanding, patience and cooperation by the legislator-lawyer, judges, opposing lawyers and clients for the system to work.”
Lindsey said he and Ralston have talked about that balancing act over the years and Ralston “has also worked hard to meet his commitments to both the people of Georgia and his clients.”
Paul Chernak disagrees. Chernak, of Cumming, was injured in a car accident in 2006. He was not at fault. He hired Ralston’s law firm in 2008 and said that over the next five years Ralston failed to handle his case. He eventually changed lawyers and filed a complaint with the State Bar of Georgia.
The State Bar’s investigative panel pursued the complaint and on Nov. 1., 2013, declared there was probable cause to show Ralston violated the rules that all lawyers must follow. The panel forwarded its findings to the State Bar’s lawyers, and on Thursday the official complaint was filed with the Supreme Court, which has the power to punish lawyers.
Perhaps the most damaging allegation against Ralston is that he used other clients’ escrow money, as well as his own personal funds, to help Chernak with living expenses, according to the complaint. Chernak’s complaint claims that he told Ralston he was having trouble paying expenses, and Ralston sent him several checks totaling $22,000 as an advance against a future settlement in the case.
State Bar rules prohibit using a client’s escrow account that way. Punishment for mismanaging a client’s account is disbarment.
“There are very clear and strict rules that prescribe and lay out what monies can be used and in what circumstances and what is your fiduciary responsibility,” said Chuck Clay, a former state senator and chairman of the state Republican Party who has served as a Supreme Court special master. “The fact that there’s an allegation doesn’t mean there’s truth to it. But the legal base framework are very serious and very important.”
Clay said Ralston should be prepared for a lengthy and comprehensive process.
“The wheels grind slowly,” Clay said. “I’ve found the process to be fair. I’ve generally found it to be very thorough. When you have any type of public figure involved I think they would take the extra care and time and diligence.”
Finally, Ralston’s political opponents are crowing over the speaker’s predicament. Atlanta Tea Party Patriot co-founder Debbie Dooley, who led an unsuccessful effort to defeat Ralston in May’s primary, claims she has other former clients of Ralston’s ready to make similar claims.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dooley said.
Mike Hassinger, a Republican political strategist, said Ralston should be presumed innocent, but he doesn’t think that will happen, thanks to Dooley.
“You would expect state Democrats to make hay out of this,” said Hassinger, who is also assistant editor of the conservative PeachPundit blog. Dooley “seems to be dancing on a grave that’s not even filled yet. That strikes me as odd. You’d expect the speaker to be attacked from the left side, but we’re seeing it from the right.”
Regardless, Ralston’s supporters in the House say this controversy won’t hurt him within their chamber.
“There will not be any attempt today, tomorrow, next year or anytime in my lifetime to elect someone besides David Ralston as the speaker of the Georgia House,” said Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon. “He has earned that position as long as he wants it, and I am certain I speak for the overwhelming majority of my colleagues.”
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