State Bar opposes Ralston settlement

The State Bar of Georgia on Thursday said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston should answer more questions over a complaint filed by a former client and said it opposed his request that the matter be resolved with a settlement that would require no more than public reprimand.

In a filing with the State Disciplinary Board, the Bar argues that Ralston’s June filing of a petition suggesting possible punishment in the case was “inaccurate, incomplete or immaterial,” and it demanded an evidentiary hearing “where the proof of each party can be tested for accuracy.”

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. The state Supreme Court, which decides punishment against attorneys, appointed Hiawassee attorney Mark Dehler as “special master” of the case. Dehler will eventually present his findings to the court.

Possible outcomes range from a dismissal of the complaint to public reprimand to disbarment. Dehler declined to comment Thursday. In his Petition for Voluntary Discipline, filed in June, Ralston attorney James Balli of Marietta suggests that the speaker face no more than “formal admonition” or public reprimand.

Balli, who is Ralston’s co-counsel, along with former Gov. Roy Barnes, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he believes “the pleadings filed by Speaker Ralston are comprehensive, compelling and consistent with the narrative that has been communicated from the beginning by Speaker Ralston’s counsel.”

Ralston’s petition and the Bar’s response were first reported Thursday by the website Fetchyournews.com. Efforts to reach officials with the State Bar were unsuccessful late Thursday.

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.

Ralston is also accused of sending Chernak $22,000 via 12 separate checks to help Chernak pay for living expenses. The complaint claims the money came from other clients, third parties and Ralston’s personal accounts. It is the most serious of the charges Ralston faces.

Ralston, however, is also accused of violating Bar rules that prohibit attorneys from loaning money to clients, which is considered a less serious offense. In his petition filed last month, Ralston admitted that he had not been aware of that rule but he denies that the money came from other clients or third parties. He said the money was a fee from a previous client that he had yet to move to a personal account.

Balli writes in Ralston’s petition that the “State Bar would not meet its burden of proof on many counts of the formal complaint” and that several of the charges are factually incorrect.

But the Bar also claims Ralston has refused to comply with requests that he give the Bar records of a trust account so “they may be examined to determine the extent of his violations of the applicable rules.”

The Bar calls characterizations of his handling of the trust account “self-serving and unverified.”

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