Judge Robert "Mack" Crawford, Superior Court, Pike County. At his JQC hearing on Monday February 25th 2019. Judge Robert “Mack” Crawford, Superior Court, Pike County. At his JQC hearing on Monday February 25, 2019. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

A Superior Court judge suspended last fall when he was indicted on charges of stealing $15,675 from the court registry told a state judicial watchdog panel Friday that he made “a big mistake” when he directed a court clerk to pay him the money.

But Judge Robert M. “Mack” Crawford insisted during the second day of an ethics hearing on charges that he violated the state Judicial Code of Ethics that he has a legitimate claim to money he deposited in the Pike County court registry 17 years ago for two former clients.

The ethics charges were filed last year by the state Judicial Qualifications Commission and, if upheld, could result in Crawford’s removal from the bench.

Crawford deposited the funds in the court registry in 2002 to redeem client Dan Mike Clark’s property after it was sold for back taxes.

Crawford said the money—which remained in the registry for 13 years after Clark died in 2004 and Clark’s live-in partner, Bobbie Whalen, moved to Texas—was owed to him for unpaid legal fees, dating to when he was in private practice eight years before his appointment to the bench.

The property was never redeemed and another superior court judge closed the case in 2009 and ordered that the registry funds be disbursed to Clark, Whalen or their heirs. At that time, Crawford did not lay claim to the funds as promised legal fees. He has testified that he provided the court clerk with possible contact information for Whalen and for Clark’s heirs so she could return the money.

Crawford also claimed Friday that, when he contacted one of Clark’s brothers after Clark’s death to give the funds to him, Crawford said the man told him he didn’t want the money and to leave him alone or he would kill him.

In December 2017, when a court clerk in the Pike County courthouse where Crawford presided told the judge she intended to forward the money to the state as unclaimed funds, Crawford gave her a handwritten note directing her to pay him instead.

“I am so sorry,” Crawford told the JQC judicial panel on Friday. “If I had it to do over, would I do it different? Yes.”

Crawford said that, when he told Superior Court Clerk Carolyn Williams to pay him the money, “I am the one who suggested writing the note and putting it in the file.” But, he insisted, “It was not an order.”

“I do make mistakes,” he continued. But, he added, “I would like to keep my job. … I have given my whole life to my community.”

Crawford said that, in retrospect, he should have filed a petition or sought the appointment of an administrator to adjudicate the matter through the county probate court as assets of Clark’s estate.

Crawford said that, when JQC Director Ben Easterlin first contacted him about the money, Easterlin urged him to return it. Crawford, who deposited the funds shortly before Christmas into a personal bank account that was more than $2,000 overdrawn, said, “It took me a few days to get it transferred. But I returned the money.”

Crawford said that, after he returned the funds, he asked the clerk to notify the state he had a claim. Instead, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation—which by then had begun investigating the judge—located Whalen and the state then forwarded the entire $15,675 to her, according to testimony at Friday’s hearing.

Crawford also challenged Whalen’s claim to the funds, contending that he had gotten $9,675 of the amount from the county tax commissioner after the tax sale, although the check was made out to a woman who had previously lived with Clark and was listed as the owner of record. Crawford said Clark paid him the $6,000 balance.

Fulton County Superior Court Chief Judge Robert McBurney, one of the three JQC hearing panelists, asked Crawford if Clark had survived and the property had been redeemed, how much Crawford would have charged him in legal fees.”That $15,000: Is it less? Is it more?” he asked.

“Sir, I don’t know,” Crawford said. Crawford said in addition to the initial work he did to redeem the property where Clark and Whalen lived, he also defended Clark after his arrest following a fistfight with a repo man. Clark never paid him for that, either, Crawford said.

Crawford’s lawyer, former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, argued that, although the JQC ethics charges accuse Crawford of ordering the court clerk to turn the money over, both the clerk and Crawford testified that the judge never issued a formal court order. And, he added, “You have no jurisdiction, respectfully, over anything that occurred before he became a judge.”

Barnes also said that, while Crawford did not follow the proper legal procedure in laying claim to the money, “Making a mistake on the law is not a violation of the canon of ethics. … This is a civil dispute on who is entitled to the funds.”

Barnes also predicted that the pending criminal case against Crawford will never go to trial, and, if it does, “They will not convict him.”

But Easterlin questioned why  Clark said nothing for more than a decade about being owed the registry funds, even after Clark died and the case to redeem the property was eventually dismissed. “It’s inconceivable that he would not have tried to get those funds for himself, if they were due to him at that time,” Easterlin contended.

Crawford, he added, “has proven on several occasions he is willing to say or do something that is not really truthful, if that’s what it takes to get what he wants. … Being sorry is not an excuse. Restitution does not eliminate the crime.”