Supreme Court to investigate Speaker David Ralston over complaint

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston faces possible disbarment and a state Supreme Court investigation over a former client’s complaint that he ignored his case for years.

Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, is accused of violating nine Georgia Bar Association rules and of allowing his duties as a legislator “to adversely affect his representation” of his client, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Georgia Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court must now appoint a lawyer to continue the investigation and eventually present findings to the Supreme Court, which has ultimate power to discipline a lawyer. Possible punishment includes a range of acquittal, public reprimand or disbarment.

Paul E. Chernak hired Ralston’s law firm after he was injured in a 2006 car accident. Chernak was not at fault. According to the Bar Association’s complaint, forwarded to the Supreme Court on Thursday, Ralston personally became involved in the case in 2008. Chernak filed a lawsuit in 2008 claiming injury and damages from the accident.

Efforts to reach Chernak were unsuccessful. Ralston spokesman Marshall Guest said Ralston “takes any charges about his professional conduct as an attorney very seriously.”

“For more than 34 years as a practicing attorney, he has shown that he cares very deeply about his clients’ legal rights,” Guest said. “While he will continue to vigorously defend his professional reputation against these accusations of technical violations of State Bar rules, he will do so by continuing to fully cooperate with the investigation.”

Guest said that even though Ralston’s relationship with this client has “deteriorated to this point in spite of everyone’s good faith efforts, Mr. Ralston will continue to respect the attorney-client privilege with regard to the specifics.”

The complaint claims that from 2009 to 2013 there were 10 separate weeks available for the case to go to trial in Gilmer County, and that in seven of those weeks Ralston requested “legislative leave” to postpone the case. State lawmakers may claim legislative leave to have court cases postponed when their duties as lawmakers require them to be elsewhere.

The complaint says that in two other weeks Ralston was involved in criminal trials that were previously set.

Ralston is also accused of sending Chernak $22,000 via 12 separate checks to help Chernak pay for living expenses. The money came from other clients, third parties and Ralston’s personal accounts, according to the complaint. If that proves to be true, it could be a serious violation of Bar rules concerning the misuse of clients’ trust accounts.

Chernak later fired Ralston and hired a new attorney.

Ralston is accused of failing to work diligently for his client, not communicating with his client, not being specific in how his fee would be determined and violating rules that bar financial assistance to a client, among other charges.

Lester Tate, a former Georgia Bar Association president and chairman of the Bar’s panel that investigates complaints against lawyers, said Ralston faces a “serious situation,” but he stressed that, just like in a criminal case, there is a “presumption of innocence.”

“The Bar will have to prove those allegations,” Tate said.

The Bar’s investigative panel, which issued the complaint sent to the Supreme Court, is made up of both lawyers and nonlawyers, Tate said. Ralston would have been given an opportunity to respond under oath. The complaint sent to the Supreme Court essentially means the investigative panel believes there is probable cause Ralston violated Bar rules.

“A lot of these things get probable cause because the client said one thing and the lawyer said another, and it’s not the investigative panel’s place to determine the truth,” said Tate, who is now a member of the Judicial Qualifications Committee. The JQC investigates complaints against judges.

As for the Ralston complaint, Tate said some of the allegations are “not particularly serious and others could be.”

The charge that Ralston misused other clients’ trust accounts to send money to Chernak, for example, could be damaging for the speaker. “Trust account violations are the things that frequently get lawyers disbarred,” Tate said. “A lot of other stuff are things people complain about lawyers: the case takes too long, there were too many continuances.”

Tate said it appears as if the Bar’s investigators “added every charge they possibly could, which is not to say that those charges or any of those charges could ultimately be sustained.”