The State Bar of Georgia’s Disciplinary Review Panel issued a reprimand to Georgia House of Representatives Speaker David Ralston on Friday during the bar’s annual convention at Jekyll Island.
The panel’s action was ordered by the Georgia Supreme Court in December after it unanimously agreed that Ralston, a practicing attorney in Blue Ridge, had violated bar rules prohibiting a lawyer from loaning money to a client while a case was pending and of using money from his trust account to do so.
The reprimand, which was read to Ralston during the panel’s meeting, acknowledged that he had advanced funds to his clients “believing that they were truly in dire financial need” and “were having difficulty meeting the basic necessities of for themselves and their minor child, including paying rent and paying for prescription medication.”
Even so, it concluded with a “reminder” for Ralston to “be meticulous in handling your trust account and to promptly move earned fees from your trust account to your operating account so that you do not inadvertently commingle client funds with your own funds.”
Ralston was the subject of a grievance by two former clients, Paul and Shanda Chernak, who said the lawyer had repeatedly stalled their personal injury suit, stemming from a 2006 auto accident, while he attended to legislative business.
After the Chernaks hired new counsel and settled the suit, they filed a grievance alleging multiple violations of bar rules. According to bar filings, Ralston among other violations loaned the couple $22,000 in 2010 and 2011, using funds from an unrelated fee he had deposited in his trust account but had not disbursed.
The original grievance accused Ralston of nine violations of bar rules, but a special master determined that only two were appropriate for disciplinary action.
Special master Jonathan Peters, a former DeKalb County Superior Court judge and now a partner with Peters & Monyak, recommended that Ralston receive a review panel reprimand, which is public, and face no additional discipline.
In a Dec. 8 opinion the Supreme Court agreed.
On Thursday, Review panel chairman, Meunier Carlin & Curfman partner Anthony Askew, said Ralston’s was the only reprimand that would be issued at the meeting.
“The reprimand will be administered by reading it to Mr. Ralston and a copy will be provided to him and he will be free to leave,” said Askew via email. “The entire procedure is quite brief.”
The panel met Friday afternoon, and State Bar General Counsel Paula Frederick confirmed that Ralston had been reprimanded. Neither Ralston nor his attorney immediately responded to requests for comment. When the high court opinion was released, Ralston’s attorney James Balli told the Daily Report that the speaker was “very grateful to his family and friends for their unwavering support throughout this ordeal.”
“From the first day this matter was reported, we said this was nothing more than an honest mistake made while helping a client’s family pay for medicine and other necessities,” Balli said at the time.
Ralston was first elected to the state House in 2002 after serving in the state Senate from 1992 until 1998.