To paraphrase the late crooner Frank Sinatra, Georgia House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston was riding high in May and shot down in June. Now come two big questions as accusations confront him: Could the Blue Ridge Republican emerge with an acquittal from the state Supreme Court? Or could there be punishment such as a reprimand or worse— ultimately forcing him down and out as speaker?
The politician/attorney, an overwhelming victor in his May 20 primary in his mountain district, is charged with violating nine Georgia Bar Association rules including allowing his duties as a lawmaker “to adversely affect his representation.” All this is contained in a complaint from former Ralston client Paul E. Chernak who was injured in a 2006 automobile accident.
The State Bar will have to prove these allegations and there is a presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. Unfortunately for Ralston, though, the Bar’s investigative panel sent the complaint to the state Supreme Court— which means panelists felt there was probable cause that Bar rules were violated.
Former State Bar president Lester Tate put it in perspective to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter: Some of the allegations are “not particularly serious and others could be.”
The complaint specifically accuses the speaker of failing to work diligently for his client. It claims that from 2009 to 2013 there were 10 separate weeks available for the Chernak case to go to trial and that in seven of those weeks Ralston exercised the “legislative leave” excuse for the court. One allegation is he misused the state law allowing such an excuse as a means to unreasonably drag out the case. The complaint also alleges Ralston didn’t effectively communicate with his client, was not specific on how his fee would be determined and violated rules that prohibit financial assistance to a client.
Perhaps the most serious accusation, according to all legal observers, is that the speaker sent Chernak $22,000 through 12 separate checks to help him pay living expenses as the case bogged down. The money came from other clients, third parties and Ralston’s personal accounts according to the complaint. If true, that is a serious violation of Bar rules concerning the co-mingling of accounts and payments.
Veteran Decatur attorney James Spence Jr. is representing the speaker while the State Bar asked the Supreme Court to appoint a special master to basically act as a prosecutor. That
special master is attorney Mark Dehler, husband of former Democrat secretary of state (and gubernatorial candidate) Cathy Cox.
This will be a lengthy and exhaustive process, especially with a public figure of the speaker’s stature and the fact that a worst case scenario would be disbarment from the practice of law.
In recent years the Court has overseen the disbarment of various lawyer/politicians for abusing clients. They include then-Atlanta City Councilman Lamar Willis, former U.S. Rep. Denise Majette, D-Ga., and former state Democrat Party chair Mike Berlon. Interestingly, the Bar case against mercurial Atlanta attorney John Woodham— once publicly accused by a Superior Court judge of engaging in …”unethical and.. possibly illegal conduct” — has dragged on for five years. Even though Woodham is accused of far more serious allegations than Ralston, revolving around improper intervention in a bond case, he still practices law while some short-term law license suspension punishment is being considered.
As for the political ramifications so far, the House’s prominent Republican legislators are rallying around their speaker. Consider the response from House Ethics Committee Chairman Rep. Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs:
“I’ve known David Ralston for years and believe him to be of fine character. As a part-time legislator, he has worked hard to balance his immense legislative duties with his legal practice. It should be kept in mind that there is no allegation that the speaker ever tried to enrich himself personally.”
The speculation heard by this writer during Saturday’s Fulton County GOP barbecue rally in Roswell, attended by various lawmakers and state officials, is that the speaker could probably politically survive a simple reprimand but nothing more severe.
In the meantime, look for the speaker’s opponents – ranging from liberal journalists and Democrats to some Tea Party activists who clash with him— to be rolling out a steady stream of attacks. Could another disgruntled client or two could even emerge?
Ralston’s spokesman says the speaker has pledged to “respect the attorney-client privilege with regard to the specifics.” But if he ever is to be riding high again, the speaker and his allies must give an effective general explanation of his Chernak actions before the court of public opinion— just as his lawyer will be defending those actions in the courtroom.