David Ralston
David Ralston (Photo by John Disney/Daily Report)

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston has formally denied charges that he abandoned a client in a 2008 personal injury case and misappropriated client funds.

“Speaker Ralston has practiced law in North Georgia for over 34 years and during that time has developed a thriving law practice where most of his clients are friends and neighbors. This is the first time in those 34 years of practicing law that the State Bar [of Georgia] has filed a formal bar complaint against him,” Ralston’s attorney Robert Ingram said Wednesday in a written statement. “Mr. Ralston has acknowledged unintentional mistakes to the State Bar and has cooperated with its investigation.”

Ingram, along with Ralston’s other attorney, James Spence Jr., filed a response Wednesday in the pending discipline case.

The bar filed its formal complaint against Ralston with the Supreme Court of Georgia in June. The high court appointed Mark Dehler of Hiawassee as special master in the case.

In the complaint, Ralston, who was admitted to the bar in 1980, is accused of abandoning his client and improperly using funds from his client trust account. The complaint lists 10 counts of rules violations that carry maximum penalties ranging from public reprimand to disbarment.

The complaint stemmed from Ralston’s representation of Paul Chernak, who had been involved in a car wreck in 2006. Ralston filed Chernak’s personal injury suit in March 2008 in Gilmer County Superior Court.

The case was assigned to Appalachian Circuit Chief Judge Brenda Weaver, whose calendar included two jury trial weeks per year in Gilmer County. According to the bar’s complaint, there were 10 weeks between 2009 and 2013 when the lawsuit could have come to trial.

Ralston, who has been a state representative since 2002 and speaker of the House since 2010, successfully requested legislative leave for seven of those weeks. He was involved in criminal cases that were specially set during another two of those weeks.

Ralston did not consult with his client about obtaining delays or requesting the case be set for trial, according to the bar’s formal complaint. Ralston “did not make reasonable efforts to expedite the litigation consistent with Mr. Chernak’s interest,” the bar stated. He “allowed his interest in being, and his duties as, a member of the Georgia Legislature to adversely affect his representation of Mr. Chernak.”

When Chernak eventually hired a new attorney, Ralston was delinquent in turning over the case files, according to the bar complaint.

Ralston’s answer denied the claims and said he mailed a copy of Chernak’s file to the new attorney after hand-delivering a copy of the file months earlier.

The bar also stated that Ralston advanced Chernak $22,000 to cover his living expenses while the case was pending, later seeking reimbursement.

The bar’s complaint alleged that Ralston wrote Chernak checks from his client trust account even though there were no funds belonging to Chernak in the account, meaning that the money either came from other clients or Ralston was commingling his personal funds with those of his clients.

In Ralston’s answer, his attorneys stated that Chernak asked Ralston for a loan.

“Mr. Chernak told Mr. Ralston of his family’s inability to pay rent, to obtain medical care and prescription drugs or to pay for other basic necessities,” according to Ralston’s answer. “Mr. Chernak then requested Mr. Ralston to loan him money to be reimbursed out of the proceeds from settlement or trial of his case so that he could provide for his family.”

Ralston’s attorneys also denied that the loan came from funds belonging to other clients or third parties.

Ralston wrote Chernak a dozen checks and the money came from Ralston’s “earned but previously undisbursed legal fees from an unrelated case,” the answer stated.

“All of Mr. Ralston’s actions have been open, honest, and sincere regarding his representation of his client,” Ingram said. “Mr. Ralston has spent more than three decades building his professional reputation and he is disappointed that the State Bar chose to bring formal public charges rather than work to resolve the matter informally as is customary.”