Top Democratic official in more legal hot water

The head of Georgia’s Democratic Party is facing more legal trouble.

Mike Berlon was accused in a Gwinnett County lawsuit this week of failing to distribute nearly $1 million from a trust he created for a friend and his son. The lawsuit also suggested others could have concerns after the State Bar of Georgia suspended Berlon’s legal license last month over a separate matter.

It came days after another legal headache surfaced for Berlon, a Grayson attorney who has led the state party since 2011. The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday accepted Berlon’s request to be reprimanded for violating legal ethics rules involving a client with child support issues.

“It’s an occupational hazard of being a lawyer,” Berlon said. “Sometimes people aren’t going to be happy.”

The Gwinnett lawsuit was filed this week by Raymond Hines, who hired Berlon to create a trust in his wife’s name after her death in 2003. Hines and his son pumped about $960,000 into the trust, they say, but they never heard back from Berlon when they repeatedly emailed and texted him wondering where their money was.

Berlon said Thursday that the complaint was the result of a “miscommunication” after he put the funds in long-term investments. He said he hoped to reach a settlement with Hines by next week, and their attorney, Brian Deutsch, said negotiations were under way.

The 12-page lawsuit also noted that “other individuals may have claims” against Berlon because of his suspended legal license. Berlon said a client seeking his counsel filed a complaint against him with the Bar when he decided he couldn’t represent her. He said he sent a response but that the Bar apparently never received it, leading to his automatic suspension.

“It had nothing to do with any ethical violations, it was procedural,” Berlon said. “Frankly, I should have been smarter than that. I’ve been practicing 22 years and don’t really get involved in many Bar complaints. I assumed if they didn’t have the paperwork they would call.”

Georgia Democrats are at a crucial stage as they seek a top-shelf candidate for an opening U.S. Senate seat next year in hopes of chipping away at the Republicans who dominate state politics. And he’s facing criticism over financial reports that show his organization has about $30,000 on hand. The state GOP reported it had roughly 20 times that amount.

“I’m doing the best job I can as chair of the Democratic Party, and my private practice has nothing to do with that,” Berlon said. “I still have two years on my term and I intend to serve it out.”

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