A former Georgia attorney general claims a pay deal between an Atlanta attorney and a Middle Georgia prosecutor violates state law and appellate rulings by giving them a financial stake in bringing criminal prosecutions and civil forfeiture cases.
Former AG Mike Bowers and law partner Christopher Anulewicz have filed a motion to disqualify Atlanta attorney Michael Lambros and David Cooke Jr., district attorney for the Macon Judicial Circuit, in a criminal case against a Peach County couple. The defendants are Ronnie Bartlett, 73, and his 76-year-old wife, Lee—owners of a now-defunct restaurant, Captain Jack’s Crab Shack.
Bowers and Anulewicz, both of Balch & Bingham, have also sought to disqualify Lambros in an unrelated civil racketeering case against Rana Mujudiddi and Faith Business Inc. Mujudiddi is the owner of a DeKalb County convenience store.
Lambros, who defeated a disqualification challenge last year, declined to comment, referring the Daily Report to Cooke’s office. Cooke’s spokeswoman said the allegations in the disqualification motions “are false and will be proven false.”
“We look forward to having our day in court,” Cooke’s statement said.
Both cases involve the operation of coin-operated game machines where winners allegedly received cash prizes, a misdemeanor offense under state gambling laws.
Both disqualification motions are before Macon Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge David Mincey III.
The Bartletts’ Peach County restaurant was shut down in 2015 after Lambros, acting as a special assistant district attorney (ADA), and the Macon DA seized nine coin-operated video games at the restaurant, according to a federal lawsuit the Bartletts filed against Cooke and Lambros last year.
A temporary receiver took control of the Bartletts’ bank accounts and assets, and Lambros filed a civil racketeering suit against the couple stemming from their coin-operated games. He dismissed the suit after the Bartletts were forced into bankruptcy.
The Bartletts were not charged with any crime until 17 months after their restaurant was raided—and two months after they sued Cooke and Lambros. Charges include racketeering, commercial gambling, possession of a gambling device or operating a gambling house, and failing to turn over sales tax revenues to the state.
Once the Bartletts were indicted, Cooke and Lambros sought and received a stay of the federal civil proceedings until the criminal charges are resolved.
Bowers and Anulewicz, representing the Bartletts, have asked Mincey to dismiss the indictment and have claimed in federal filings that the criminal charges were retaliation for the couple’s civil suit.
The disqualification motion in the Bartletts’ criminal case claims the charges are part of “a wide-reaching pattern and practice” Lambros has employed for at least 17 years “of seizing and retaining assets of small businesses” with coin-operated machines by filing civil racketeering suits and, in some cases, criminal charges.
“Lambros leverages the threat of criminal prosecution against vulnerable business owners, many of whom are immigrants to this country, to extort settlements from them, the proceeds of which Lambros and Cooke retain for their personal financial and political benefit,” the motion says.
To disqualify Lambros and Cooke from prosecuting their clients, Bowers and Anulewicz contend that Lambros is collecting contingency fees based on the total assets forfeited—a practice barred by state statute, the State Bar of Georgia’s professional conduct rules and rulings of the state Court of Appeals and state Supreme Court.
Bowers and Anulewicz examined Lambros’ escrow account records through state public records requests, because he is paid with public money as a special ADA. They say that Lambros has no contract with Cooke’s office and that Lambros’ escrow transactions associated with the forfeitures show that Lambros was paid from asset seizures only in cases where assets actually were forfeited. In cases that were dismissed, Lambros did not collect a fee, they said.
Lambros has addressed the motion to disqualify him as a prosecutor in the Faith Business case, asserting in a one-paragraph response that there is no contingency fee contract that violates state law. Neither Lambros nor Cooke have filed a response to the Bartlett disqualification motion.
At a September court hearing in the Faith Business case, Lambros acknowledged that he negotiated settlements involving asset forfeitures on the district attorney’s behalf. But he insisted he is paid an hourly rate as a special ADA because, “It’s against the law to do a contingency.” He told the judge he withheld those hourly billings when he responded to Anulewicz’s open records request. Mincey has ordered Lambros to turn those hourly billings over to him for an in camera review before he rules on the Faith Business disqualification motion, according to a hearing transcript.
Lambros has defeated a motion to disqualify him before. In Clayton County last year, where Lambros has served as a special ADA for DA Tracy Lawson, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Matthew Simmons found no evidence of a contingency fee arrangement after Lambros produced a contract with the Clayton DA stating he would be paid regardless of whether assets were ultimately forfeited.
Anulewicz told the Daily Report that his review of open records associated with Lambros’ asset forfeitures for the Macon DA shows that Lambros has no contract with Cooke and that Lambros’ draw of legal fees are directly tied to asset forfeitures. “The payments to the special ADA [Lambros] are clearly unconstitutional and in violation of the law. … He should be disqualified from doing this any further,” Anulewicz said.
Anulewicz and Bowers also contended in the Bartlett disqualification motion that Lambros has used his authority as a special ADA to his financial benefit.
In one 17-month period from April 2016 to August 2017 in Cooke’s circuit alone, Lambros was paid $710,000 after he secured more than $3.3 million in asset seizures—far more, the motion said, than if he had billed at an hourly rate as a special ADA. Lambros holds similar appointments as special ADA in other circuits across the state.
In the same 17-month period during which Lambros earned $710,000, the special ADA channeled more than $2.6 million to Cooke’s coffers, the motion said.
Citing donations Cooke has made to local civic groups from those forfeited assets, Anulewicz said, “It is very clear that the DA’s office in Macon has profited substantially from its continued forefeiture efforts and that these monies have been expended not for his office but on politically beneficial issues.”
“It really bothers me as a lawyer in this state to see these types of actions being taken that are clearly for monetary purposes,” Anulewicz said. “It’s not the purpose of being a DA. It’s not acting in the best interest of the public when you are lining your office’s pocket or your own pocket, and then that interest becomes predominant. That’s why you can’t do this.”