A Camden County associate probate judge pleaded guilty Wednesday to three felonies stemming from an ethics investigation by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission, said a special prosecutor who negotiated the plea deal.
Shirley Wise, an associate probate judge who in November was elected chief probate judge of the county, pleaded guilty to theft by taking, theft by deception, and violating her oath of office, said Brian Rickman, the district attorney of Georgia’s Mountain Circuit. He was appointed as a special prosecutor by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens to handle the case after the local district attorney recused.
Chief Judge David Cavender of the Atlantic Judicial Circuit Superior Court sentenced Wise as a first offender to seven years probation and ordered her to pay $5,500 in restitution to the county and a $1,000 fine, Rickman said. Wise also resigned her current post effective immediately, the prosecutor said, and also agreed to resign as the incoming probate judge.
Wise is not a lawyer. Probate judges in Georgia counties with fewer than 100,000 people are not required to have either a college degree, a law degree or a license to practice law. According to her LinkedIn page, Wise has received some paralegal training at a local junior college.
Wise’s attorney, James Stein of St. Marys, said that in pleading guilty, Wise accepted responsibility for her actions and mitigated expenses for Camden County’s taxpayers “who would have been burdened with the expenses of a trial” if she had chosen to fight the charges.
“It was in the best interest of all concerned,” he said. “Serious consideration was given to mitigating expenses for everyone concerned. … The whole purpose was to put this thing to rest and stop the clock on expenses of the county and everyone concerned.”
Wise also agreed, as a special condition of her sentence, that she would not seek or accept any public office in the future—an agreement that was not limited to a judicial post, Rickman said.
Wise’s plea marks the first time that the JQC has sought to bar disgraced former judges from public offices beyond the judiciary. The JQC historically has required judges who resign in order to end an ethics investigation to agree not to seek or accept judicial office in the future. But two judges who resigned under ethical clouds—former Superior Court Judge Oliver Harris “Harry” Doss of the Appalachian Circuit and former Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell Jr. of the Griffin Circuit—ran for other public offices this year. Doss came in third in a bid to oust the district attorney who had cooperated in the JQC’s investigation of Doss.Caldwell won a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.
Wise’s plea also marks just the second time in the JQC’s recent history that a judicial ethics investigation has resulted in a criminal conviction of a judge. In 2009, Brooks E. Blitch III, former chief Superior Court judge of the Alapaha Circuit in south Georgia, and the circuit’s former state court judge, Berrien Sutton, pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges stemming from a 2007 JQC ethics investigation that had prompted them to resign their judicial posts.
But in February, U.S. District Senior Judge Hugh Lawson of the Middle District of Georgia—who had sentenced the two former judges to probation—tossed out their convictions. He did so in accordance with a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that honest services fraud—the charge to which they each had pleaded —was applicable only when the defendants were proven to have participated in a bribery or kickback scheme.
Because JQC ethics investigations have rarely resulted in a judge’s criminal conviction, Rickman said that Wise’s guilty plea is “very significant.” When the JQC discovered “something that was possibly criminal, it was handled as such,” he said.
“I think sometimes when there is a resignation [of a judge], that everything doesn’t get looked into,” the special prosecutor, who has cooperated with several JQC investigations as the Mountain Circuit’s district attorney, continued. “That is certainly not the case here.”
While investigating Wise, the JQC referred information about potential crimesto Brunswick Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, according to JQC Director Jeff Davis. Johnson recused and asked the attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor. On Nov. 30, Olens named Rickman as district attorney pro tempore to investigate whether criminal charges were warranted.
Davis said that the commission “is cooperating and will continue to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors whenever we have evidence of potential criminal conduct.”
Davis, who was hired in July 2010 , acknowledged that in the past, the JQC has balked at sharing with prosecutors evidence of potential crimes uncovered during its investigations. But he said that the old policy has been reworked. “In the course of any investigation, the JQC will provide relevant information to the appropriate authorities,” he said, “including law enforcement and the State Bar of Georgia.”
Wise entered her guilty plea just days after the JQC issued new charges accusing her of felony theft and destruction of public records. The JQC first filed ethics charges against Wise in October that included taking kickbacks, bribery and channeling would-be brides and grooms, whose marriages she is sworn to perform, to local, more expensive, wedding chapels. She had been scheduled to appear before a JQC ethics tribunal to contest all the charges next Monday.
According to the JQC charges, beginning in 2009, Wise induced a county employee to submit false invoices—which Wise would then approve—for payment of work that had been performed for the Camden County Probate Court. On at least three occasions, according to the JQC, Wise submitted those invoices to the county for payment and, after the vendor was paid, secured illegal kickbacks from the vendor.
The JQC also accused Wise of directing a court employee to forge the signature of Martin Gillette, Camden County’s chief probate judge, ono new documents and file them with the court, a felony under state law.
The charges also accusedWise of refusing to perform wedding ceremonies—one of the duties of a probate judge—and referring brides and grooms instead to certain for-profit wedding chapels in the county which charged higher fees to perform a wedding than the county probate court.
The JQC charges claimed that Wise violated state law by allowing the for-profit chapels to serve as a “satellite courthouse” for the probate court and provided them with pre-signed marriage license affidavits. State law requires that all marriage licenses must be issued at the county courthouse either by the probate judge or probate clerk.
St. Marys and nearby Kingsland—with their proximity to Florida and to military bases both in Florida and Georgia—have long been marketed as places to get quick, convenient weddings, and the county is home to multiple wedding chapels.
In 1996, the county attracted international attention when John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette famously eluded the celebrity press by marrying in a private wedding on Cumberland Island. Wise, then a probate clerk, issued the couple’s marriage license at a local airport after Kennedy and his bride-to-be flew in on separate aircraft just days before the wedding.
On Dec. 6, the JQC amended the original charges to accuse Wise of receiving cash payments for vital records but failing to account for and deposit the funds in county coffers. Instead, the JQC claimed Wise misappropriated the funds for her personal use.
The new charges also accused Wise of attempting to conceal the thefts by shredding or otherwise destroying duplicates normally kept by her office of the receipts she issued for the cash payments. Destroying a public record is a felony in Georgia.
Rickman said Wednesday that Wise pleaded guilty to stealing cash payments for vital records. Under Georgia law, absent a county resolution, vital records fees for copies of birth and death certificates and marriage licenses belong not to the county but to the probate judge, he said.
Although Wise pleaded guilty to pocketing what Rickman said were “thousands and thousands” of dollars in vital records fees that, by law, belonged to Chief Probate Judge Martin Gillette, he did not wish to prosecute or seek restitution, Rickman said. Determining restitution would have been difficult, the prosecutor explained, because Wise was suspected of destroying county copies of receipts given to customers for vital records fees. Wise’s guilty plea did not include a destruction of public records charge, he said.
The restitution Wise paid stemmed from the theft by deception charge, the prosecutor said. Wise was accused of directing a probate court clerk to perform services for the probate court after hours and then approving invoices for that after-hours work, he said. At Wise’s direction, the clerk, in turn, “gave Judge Wise some of those proceeds,” he said. “That was tendered over and paid today,” he said.
Rickman said it was the probate clerk who first contacted the JQC about Wise. “That employee actually came forward,” he said.
That employee has been terminated, but Rickman said, “No final decision has been made yet as to what is going to happen to her. I’ve got to think about it.”
The whole purpose was to put this thing to rest and stop the clock on expenses of the county and everyone concerned.