Ronnie Joe Lane
Ronnie Joe Lane ()

The director of Georgia’s judicial ethics watchdog commission collects state wages and his state retirement benefits in a billing deal that tests the limits of the state’s pension laws.

Former Superior Court Judge Ronnie Joe Lane, who retired last year to head the Judicial Qualifications Commission, bills the agency about 20 hours of work a week but is making what was the former full-time director’s $120,000 salary. But Lane says he is working more than 40 hours a week at what he says is really a full-time job.

Lane also receives his state pension, about $7,000 per month, that he earned from 20 years as a judge.

State law, O.C.G.A. § 47-23-109, allows a state retiree who goes back to work for the state as either an employee or a contractor to collect retirement pay provided that the retiree “performs no more than 1,040 hours of such service in any calendar year”—or about 20 hours a week. Lane’s pension and JQC salary combined pay him more than $200,000 a year.

Lane said the additional hours he works—in practice but not on paper—do not count toward the 1,040-hour annual cap set by the state retirement law. “I volunteer everything over 1,040 hours a year,” he said. “I don’t get paid for anything over 1,040 hours a year.”

The judge, who was a juvenile court judge and then a Superior Court judge in Donalsonville, acknowledged that if he billed the JQC a full 40 hours a week under his contract—which pays him $120 an hour with no cap on hours—his JQC wages would total $240,000 a year. That is double what former JQC director Jeff Davis earned when he left last year to become the executive director of the State Bar of Georgia.

Lane insisted, “I’m never going to bill them for more than 1,040 hours” of work a year, even if he continues to work what is, in practice, a 40-hour workweek. The seven JQC commissioners, he said, “know I’m not going to do that. I know I’m not going to do that. If I did that, they would fire me.”

“You can say that’s too much money an hour,” he added. “But the commission decided that’s what I was worth.”

JQC Chairman Lester Tate, a former president of the State Bar of Georgia, said the Daily Report’s inquiries about Lane’s contract have prompted him to ask the Judicial Retirement System for a formal ruling on the propriety of the deal. He said that when the JQC voted to hire Lane, Lane drew up the contract.

Tate said that because Lane had “a distinguished service record on the bench, was a graduate of a U.S. military academy [West Point] where the motto is, ‘We do not lie, cheat, or steal or tolerate people who do,’ I think the commission was certainly willing, as long as he was paid the same or less to have the same job done, to structure the deal in a fashion that allowed him to collect his retirement.”

“We were assured by him—because it was his retirement—that everything about it was proper,” Tate said.

If the retirement board suggests the current arrangement with Lane is a problem, Tate said, “We’re going to fix it.” The JQC’s other six members did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.

The Daily Report’s inquiry has also prompted the JQC to review Lane’s expenses. In five of his first nine months on the job (the only payment requests from Lane that were provided to the Daily Report), Lane billed more than $7,000 in expenses—more than double the $6,205 that Davis billed for all of fiscal year 2014.

Lane acknowledged that his expenses include his 520-mile round-trip drives from his Donalsonville residence to the JQC’s office in Monroe.

Prior to Lane’s tenure, the JQC office was located in Madison, where Davis lived. Before that, the office was located in Conyers, near the home of Davis’s predecessor. Lane moved the office to Monroe to accommodate the JQC’s full-time executive assistant, who lives in Rockdale County. Lane told commissioners at the time that he had a condominium in Athens where he spends much of his time that would be convenient to the Monroe office.

“Nobody ever said it was not appropriate,” Lane said of his decision to bill expenses associated with traveling to and from Donalsonville to Monroe. “There was a choice between billing mileage or having a state car provided,” he added. Davis did not have a state car.

Lane said he doesn’t itemize his monthly JQC expenses, explaining that the JQC has never asked him to do so. “I just add up the dollar amount off my credit card,” he said. “I don’t keep itemized bills. I don’t keep every receipt. … When I was a judge, we didn’t have to itemize anything except hotel bills.”

“If they want more detail, I will be glad to do that,” he said. “I don’t need to do that for the newspaper. I feel comfortable that, if anything, I have under-billed. I can’t keep up with everything.”

Tate told the Daily Report that if Lane has been billing the JQC to commute “nonstop just to get to the office, I don’t think that’s an appropriate expense. … I will certainly take a look at that.”

‘At Risk’

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, called Lane’s part-time billing arrangement with the JQC “a little murky.”

“I don’t want somebody serving in a position who has oversight over—or is dealing with credibility issues and the integrity of—other individuals who has this kind of cloud drifting around them,”he said.

Former JQC Chairman Ben Easterlin, who rotated off the JQC before Lane was hired, called Lane’s contract “troubling,” although he said it appears that the JQC and Lane “are dealing in good faith and are making a good-faith effort to do the right thing.”

But, he continued, “It seems to me the risk would be that future boards or commissions and future directors might insist on the same terms and not perform with the same good faith that’s currently being exercised. … It’s not necessarily the best way to operate an organization.”

Easterlin also said that Lane’s contract may technically comply with the judicial retirement statutes. “I don’t think he’s performing work for which he’s compensated at more than the statute limits. … Nevertheless, it’s a matter of concern. I think Judge Lane puts himself at risk as to whether he is complying with that statute.”

Edward Queen, a legal scholar who directs Emory University’s D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership, said the arrangement “doesn’t pass the smell test because, just on the surface, it give the appearance, at least, of having created a work-around to pay a full-time salary for what legally is mandated can only be half-time work.”

Before the contract was signed, he said, someone “should have at least raised the question that, hey, this clearly looks as though we’re trying to avoid the implications of the statute.”

The deal, he added, “comes across as unseemly. … I would argue this was not handled particularly well, that it was structured poorly, that people making the decisions lack the knowledge and information they should have had.”

“Whether it’s immoral or illegal, I don’t know,” he said. “It is bloody tacky. It’s a perfect example of why people think that the governmental system is on the decline.”

Due Diligence

Marietta lawyer Robert Ingram, also a former state bar president, headed the JQC last summer when Lane was hired and signed Lane’s contract. Ingram said that he and Tate, who was then the JQC’s vice chairman, relied on Lane’s advice as to whether the billing deal was appropriate.

“Ronnie Joe had done some due diligence on the whole thing and believed, and as far as I know still believes, what we did was appropriate under the law,” Ingram said. “Lester told me Ronnie Joe checked again recently with somebody at the state, and they said, even to this day, that it was appropriate the way it was done.”

Lane said that the state Judicial Retirement System has signed off on his arrangement with the JQC and that after the Daily Report began making inquiries, “They reaffirmed it again.”

Lane he said he didn’t get the name of the person he spoke with about the deal. “It was whoever answered the phone for them,” he said.

The state judicial retirement system is exempt from public records requests about individual retirees and would not confirm Lane’s retirement status, the propriety of his arrangement with the JQC, or whether state retirement personnel are even aware of it.

James Potvin, executive director of the Judicial Retirement System, said that, in general, the retirement system takes information about retirees’ state jobs “at face value.” The system, he said, “is not in a position to question requirements as to how many hours are needed to complete a task.”

“The requirement is that an agency that employs a rehired retiree is supposed to report to us the hours they work,” Potvin explained. “If they are working for $1 an hour, or $100 an hour, it doesn’t matter. If they are working and getting compensated they are supposed to be reporting.”

Whether a retiree can write off hours as volunteer work that exceed the 1,040 hour annual cap is “getting into a gray area,” he said. “We are not in a position, and it is certainly outside our scope, to police how much somebody is getting paid for a job and how much work they have to do to do it.”

Lane insisted his deal does not create an appearance of impropriety, which is a strong component of the state Code of Judicial Conduct that the JQC enforces. “I’m willing to tell anybody how I did it,” he said. “I have never hidden that from anybody. If it looks bad to anybody, I guess it just looks bad. … I guess if the commission feels like it looks bad, I guess they will decide to change it. It’s their call.”

But, he added, “There’s not a state statute that says I can’t work more than that and not charge for it.”

Lane said he never notified the Judicial Retirement system in writing of the hours he expected to work annually for the JQC, explaining that it was the JQC chairman’s duty, not his, to do so. State law requires the state entity, in this case the JQC, to make the notification and penalizes any agency that fails to do so for any retirement benefits that might be wrongfully paid as a result.

Saving money

Ingram and Tate both said that although Lane is billing the JQC $120 an hour, they never anticipated paying him more than the old director’s $120,000 annual salary, plus expenses, even though the contract contains no cap.

Ingram, Tate and Lane contend the arrangement with Lane saves the JQC and the state about $40,000 to $50,000 a year in health and retirement benefits the JQC otherwise would have to pay its director were Lane not already retired.

And they had hoped to hire another staff attorney, which Ingram had said would have relieved Lane of some of his responsibilities and possibly reduced his hours. That slot was never filled.

“I didn’t know how many hours he would need to work,” Ingram said. “Plus, we knew we were going to be saving whatever the state had been paying in health and retirement benefits. We also got the assurance from Judge Lane that he would be doing everything that needed to be done in a timely manner and we would not have to worry about whether the work would be done.”

“If we were paying him the full-time director’s salary and the work was not getting done, we would have to let him go and bring someone else in, or his status would have to change,” he added.

Said Tate: “Ronnie Joe has always understood that what we are concerned about is that the cases that come to us are appropriately handed and handled in a timely fashion. I think he’s done that. As long as that job is getting done, I as commission chair and the other commissioners are happy with it.”

Lane said, “The commission decided because I had almost 40 years as a lawyer and 20 years as a judge, I was worth $120 a hour. You can say that’s too much money an hour. But the commissioners decided that’s what I was worth.”

“They chose to hire me and let me be retired,” he continued, adding that if he is wrong, “I can always quit. I will go back to being a senior judge is what I’ll do. … I am not doing this for the money. I can make more money doing other things that aren’t near as big a headache. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong by billing and getting paid that money. I am volunteering on top of it.” Lane insists that his arrangement with the JQC is not a ruse that allows him to bill part-time hours for a full-time salary by the state while collecting state retirement benefits.

“I don’t see there is any ruse,” he said. “A ruse is trying to hide something.” Commission members, he said, The commission members “know I’m working more” than the 80 hours a month he bills. “I told them I would work as long as needed to get the job done. If they ever felt I was not doing enough to get the job done, they can terminate me.”