Suspension Recommended in John Woodham State Bar Case
By Meghan Simons, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News
(APN) ATLANTA — Two recommendations–one for a suspension of three months and one for a suspension of six months–have been issued in the disciplinary proceedings against prominent Atlanta attorney John Woodham, for his improper actions while intervening in a bond case, as the case continues to near a resolution.
Woodham has made the news again when he filed an appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia regarding validation of a bond for the development and construction of the new Atlanta Falcons stadium using taxpayer funds. In April of this year, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville dismissed the suit filed on behalf of several residents by Woodham and co-counsel Thelma Wyatt Moore.
Woodham has made a name for himself challenging the use of taxpayer dollars for various projects, including successfully challenging funding for the Atlanta Beltline via Tax Allocation Districts.
Atlanta Progressive News first reported pending disciplinary proceedings against Woodham in 2012, which began with his intervention in a 2008 bond case against the Atlanta Development Authority (ADA) and the Fulton County Development Authority (FCDA).
At issue: Woodham offered to drop his intervention in the case in exchange for a payment of 1.3 million dollars. The request was deemed inappropriate by the State Bar of Georgia because the relief sought for damages in the case was not monetary in nature. Bond interventions are supposed be to about fighting for the public good; not personal enrichment.
The disciplinary matter arose in 2010 after attorneys for the defendants filed a grievance based on a recorded conversation with Woodham, who later claimed the money was intended for a donation to a homeless shelter via the organization Citizens for Ethics in Government – an LLC in which Woodham is the sole principal.
According to the Supreme Court of Georgia’s case record, Woodham did not state the money’s alleged purpose at any time during the phone conversation.
As APN previously reported, in an unprecedented move, former Fulton County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson–the judge in the original bond case–filed an amicus brief critical of Woodham’s actions in the case, and urged the court to reject Woodham’s petition. Stacking the deck even further, former Supreme Court Justice Leah Ward Sears filed an amicus brief also critical of Woodham.
Though the state bar recommended the court accept Woodham’s petition, the Supreme Court initially rejected the petition for voluntary discipline in the case, instead ordering the state bar to re-review the matter.
In its ruling, the court said the focus of the state bar was “too narrow,” and the bar must consider “the full array of ethical violations at play” in the case.
After review, the Special Master appointed by the state bar recommended a three month suspension and a public reprimand. This recommendation was based on two charges, including asking for the monetary settlement, as well as improper direct communication directly with an adversarial party rather than that party’s attorney.
Afterwards, a review panel request was granted by Woodham. The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with Woodham’s contention that a review panel should be convened.
In his response to the Special Master, which requested the review panel, Woodham made several references to a “cabal” convened to reject his petition for voluntary discipline.
Woodham claimed the “cabal” included the 2014 incoming president of the State Bar of Georgia, Scott Leventhal–who filed the initial grievance against Woodham–as well a reporter and the editor for the Fulton County Daily Report.
Woodham accused the attorneys of manipulating the press and conspiring with the Editor in Chief, Ed Bean, to release a series of amicus briefs critical of Woodman to the paper.
Woodham claimed the first reporter, Meredith Hobbs, had written a balanced piece regarding him, but that she killed her own article after Bean received the leak from the “cabal” and Bean re-wrote the article to slant against Woodham.
Bean then, according to Woodham, ran the negative piece against him under reporter Alyson Palmer’s name.
“This Palmer article, extremely damning to Respondent, was then published by the FCDR in late February 2012. The purpose of the article was to get the legal community’s attention for purposes of influencing the Georgia Supreme Court in respect of the pending Petition. So we have a situation of [Patrice] Perkins-Hooker [counsel for the development authority] … participating in a collaborative effort to undermine the work of the Office of General Counsel, first by participating in this unprecedented ‘roll-out’ of ‘amicus’ briefs and then making sure the whole matter was splashed all over the Atlanta legal community in the form of an article printed in the FCDR which Editor Ed Bean ensured would be sufficiently damning to sabotage the Petition. And it worked to perfection,” Woodham wrote.
Ultimately, the review panel requested by Woodham ruled that he only had violated only bar rule, when he requested the monetary compensation, but not for improper communication.
Still, even for the one charge, the Panel said in January 2014 he should serve a six month suspension because similar cases warranted such punishment. The rule violation by Woodham could have resulted in a maximum punishment of disbarment, but mitigating factors, such as Woodham having no prior discipline history, justified a six month suspension.
The review panel found Woodham intervened in the bond validation proceedings because he wished to keep the bonds he believed to be illegal from being issued, stated no monetary claim, and had no other claim against the developers, but stated he would dismiss the intervention and allow the bond to be validated if he received a payment of 1.3 million dollars.
The review panel found his actions violated Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 8.4(a)(4). According to the report, this rule “provides that it shall be a violation of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct for a lawyer to engage in professional conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation.”
The review panel further wrote that the “facts in this case clearly demonstrate that [Woodham] sought to manipulate the bond validation proceedings for his own personal benefit… [Woodham] contacted in house counsel for the Developers, circumvented bond counsel, and offered to withdraw his complaints in exchange for significant monetary compensation.”
The State Bar of Georgia contends, in an exception filed by the Bar’s Office of General Counsel, that contrary to the review panel’s report, Woodham also committed a violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct in regards to Rule 4.2(a), which states that a lawyer who is representing a client in a legal matter will not communicate with another person the lawyer knows to be represented by legal counsel. This rule is intended to protect the attorney-client relationship and prevent parties from disclosing sensitive or private information unbeknownst to counsel.
Another new revelation is that this is not the first time Woodham engaged in similar methods to intervene in bond validations.
Leventhal was the first attorney to take exception to Woodham’s method, characterizing it as a “shakedown” in several instances.
However, in the pre-trial submission filed in 2013 by Woodham’s then-counsel Warren Hinds, Hinds listed four cases in which Woodham used similar methods in November of 2008: State of Georgia v. The Atlanta Development Authority and 13th Street Holdings, LLC (2008); State of Georgia v. The Atlanta Development Authority and Mezzo Development, LLC (2008); State of Georgia v. Development Authority of Fulton County and TC-MET John’s Creek, LLC (2008); and State of Georgia v. Development Authority of Fulton County and Transwestern Campinile, LLC (2008).
In a disciplinary case with many twists and turns, Woodham summed up his actions as follows, in his request for a hearing: “Is Respondent proud of the initial strategy employed to derail these bond proceedings? No. Has Respondent used the same strategy subsequently? No.”
While Woodham states he is not proud of his conduct, he also makes the accusation that “the State Bar grievance process in this State has now evolved into a barbaric political tool in an effort to attack and silence.”
In March 2014, Woodham chose to appeal the State Bar’s Exception to the findings of the review panel to the Georgia Supreme Court.
As of June 14, the Court has yet to rule on the recommendations of the Special Master and the Review Panel.
The Court has been known to disbar attorneys who put the public’s trust and confidence in the legal profession at risk, even when those attorneys are politically powerful or influential.
In recent years, the Court has disbarred then-Atlanta City Councilman Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large), who was then unseated by Andre Dickens in the following election; as well as former Congresswoman Denise Majette (D-GA). Last week, the Court accepted a voluntary surrender of a law license from Mike Berlon, former director of the Democratic Party of Georgia.
It may very well be true that Woodham intended to give the moneys to a homeless shelter, but there is no contemporaneous evidence to prove it.
Given Woodham’s willingness to take on developers in Georgia, he has made friend and foe alike. Even if the Supreme Court suspends Woodham for three or six months, those who believe in and support Woodham will likely still support him; and those who already dislike him, will likely still dislike him.
Therefore, no matter what the outcome of this case, Woodham could still choose to have a bright future in law–and while the Court will make whatever ruling that they feel promotes public confidence in the legal profession–the public’s perception of, and feelings towards, Woodham will likely remain as divisive as the cases he chooses to pursue.
Woodham declined to comment for this story, and objected to the notion of its newsworthiness.