Appeals judge should be removed for using client and campaign account as a ‘personal ATM,’ ethics panel says
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A judicial ethics panel is recommending removal of a suspended Georgia appeals judge for exploiting an elderly client before joining the bench and using campaign cash when he was a state legislator to pay for personal expenses, including a family trip to Hawaii.
In a Jan. 30 report and recommendation, a hearing panel of the Georgia Judicial Qualifications Commission said Judge Christian A. Coomer of the Georgia Court of Appeals had used the client and the campaign funds as a “personal ATM,” Law360 reports.
Law.com and the Associated Press also have coverage.
“That the bulk of [Coomer’s] improper conduct occurred before he began serving as a judge does not change the sanction equation: Removal from office is still necessary to safeguard the public’s perception of the judiciary,” the hearing panel said.
Coomer had argued that the commission couldn’t consider conduct that happened before he was a judge.
The panel said the elderly client had made three loans totaling $369,000 to Coomer’s limited liability company, all of which included conflicts waivers. Coomer offered no security. Indeed, two of the loans listed the client’s address as security (which Coomer later attributed to a scrivener’s error). The loans would not have matured until the client was past age 80 for one loan, past age 90 for a second, and “well into his second century of life” for a third.
Coomer did not misrepresent the terms of the loans, however, and he made timely payments. He repaid the first loan in full in 2018 and the latter two after the client sued.
Coomer also drafted a will and a living trust for the client, making himself a trustee and a beneficiary as instructed by the client. When Coomer drafted a replacement will before assuming the bench, Coomer and his heirs were among the beneficiaries, while Coomer’s wife was an executor and a trustee.
Coomer had maintained that he was unaware of an ethics rule that bars lawyers from preparing wills that name themselves or family members as beneficiaries.
Coomer had used campaign cash for the Hawaii trip and to keep “the sinking finances of his law practice afloat,” the hearing panel said. He also used campaign funds for a family trip to Israel that had a partial legislative purpose.
Coomer at first reimbursed his campaign account for only some of the Hawaii and Israel expenses. He fully reimbursed the account after the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission began investigating.
Coomer had maintained that some transfers to his law firm were inadvertent, while others were intended to reimburse the firm for expenses that it incurred for the campaign. The transfers usually happened when Coomer’s firm account was overdrawn or dangerously low, the hearing panel said. He later transferred the money back to his campaign account.
In mitigation, Coomer had no prior disciplinary record, he was “somewhat cooperative” in the disciplinary case, and some witnesses viewed him as a man of “good Christian character,” the panel said.
The panel noted that character evidence from Coomer’s superior officer when Coomer was in the U.S. Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. The superior officer saw Coomer as a smart, capable leader who excelled in everything he did. The superior officer also put Coomer among the top 1% of officers he has met.
If that’s true, the hearing panel said, Coomer “knew exactly what he was doing when he convinced [the client] to loan his assetless and judgment-proof limited liability company hundreds of thousands of dollars on those unreasonable terms, when he drafted and executed those ethically impermissible and indefensible estate documents, … and when he used thousands of dollars held in public trust to fly his entire family over 4,000 miles away to the beaches of Hawaii for a private vacation at a time when he had already been appointed to be a judge on the [Georgia] Court of Appeals.”
Coomer’s “long-term pattern of violating attorney ethics rules and campaign finance laws to his own financial benefit, his lack of remorse, and his payment of restitution only after his wrongdoing came to light outweigh mitigating factors and demand removal from office,” the hearing panel said.
The hearing panel found that ethics regulators had proven 29 counts but found for Coomer on seven other counts.
Coomer was appointed to the Georgia Court of Appeals in September 2018 and was sworn in the next month. He was reelected in 2020 to a term that ends in 2026.
Coomer’s lawyer, Mark Lefkow, gave a statement to Law.com and the Associated Press. He noted the findings for Coomer, including a finding that Coomer did not violate an ethics rule barring fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation.
“The panel’s finding that Judge Coomer did not commit fraud, deceit, dishonesty or misrepresentation is correct and consistent with what the witnesses testified. The recommendation otherwise misconstrues the evidence in a manner not supported by the witnesses’ testimony and the record, and it imposes legal standards not established by the law,” said Lefkow in the statement reported by Law.com. “While we thank the panel for its consideration of the evidence, the Georgia Supreme Court remains the only body that can remove a judge from office. Judge Coomer hopes and believes the [Georgia] Supreme Court will look carefully at the record and the law and reach a different conclusion.”
ABAJournal.com: “Suspension imposed after appeals judge is accused of making himself a beneficiary of ex-client’s will”