Georgia appeals judge agrees to $25,000 fine in ethics case

December 10, 2021 GMT

ATLANTA (AP) — A suspended Georgia Court of Appeals judge has agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to settle ethics charges that he spent campaign funds for personal use.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission voted Thursday to approve a consent decree with Judge Christian Coomer.

Commission staff said it was the largest fine ever against a Georgia judge in an ethics case.

A 2020 ethics complaint accused Coomer, a former state House member, of transferring money from his old legislative campaign account to financially prop up his former law firm between 2015 and 2019. Ethics officials called the transfers “short-term loans.”

The complaint said Coomer used campaign money to pay for trips to Hawaii and Israel.

State law bars candidates from using campaign funds for personal expenses.

The complaint also alleged that Coomer failed to disclose the spending on required reports

Doug Chalmers, Coomer’s lawyer, said Coomer could have fought the complaint but wanted to “take responsibility” for what happened. He said Coomer cooperated with the ethics investigation.

“The judge is pleased we have been able to work out a resolution in this matter,” Chalmers told the commission.

Chalmers had earlier said Coomer had transferred the money unintentionally when using online banking, in part because all his accounts are at the same bank. He had said errors were quickly reversed.

“The judge has not been personally enriched and he owes no money to the campaign, there were no knowing or willful violations, and the judge self-reported certain transactions,” Chalmers said in a statement Thursday.

David Emadi, the commission’s executive secretary, said commission investigators believe Coomer intentionally made the transfers. But he said the commission didn’t have to prove intent to bring the charges.

Coomer has been under criminal investigation involving fraud claims made in a lawsuit by Nathan Filhart. The man said Coomer procured loans from the man on extremely unfavorable terms while a private lawyer in Cartersville.

Coomer was elected to the General Assembly in 2010. He was House majority whip in 2018 when then-Gov. Nathan Deal appointed him to the appeals court.

Georgia’s judicial watchdog agency, the Judicial Qualifications Commission, filed charges against Coomer late last year, alleging he violated the code of judicial conduct, as well as campaign finance and lending laws.

Coomer, who strongly denied allegations of fraud, has paid back the loans in full, said Filhart’s lawyer, Wright Gammon. In July 2020, Coomer settled the lawsuit filed by Filhart under terms that remain confidential.

Coomer voluntarily agreed to a suspension from his judicial duties during the judicial disciplinary proceedings. While he is suspended, the state is paying his $196,000 salary and paying for another judge to do his job.