“He’s a good man, but he screwed up.” Ex-client testifies at judge’s ethics trial

“I signed it and didn’t read it because I trusted him,” Filhart said, adding that he was never pressured into doing anything.

Coomer is charged with 36 ethics violations, most of them allegedly committed while he was a practicing Bartow County attorney and a State House representative. He denied defrauding his former client, telling the panel overseeing his quasi-trial that he repaid the nearly $370,000 loans given to him by Filhart. He admitted under oath on Monday that he would have waited a lot longer to pay it back if Filhart hadn’t gotten upset and sued him.

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Chuck Boring, director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, said Coomer took advantage of his client by using the borrowed money to pay off the mortgage on his house. The judge also used campaign money to supplement his family’s vacations in Israel and Hawaii, and to support his private law practice, according to the court watchdog.

ExploreState Court of Appeals Judge Christian Coomer faces landmark ethics lawsuit

In addition to taking out large loans on terms unfavorable to his client, Coomer named himself executor, trustee and beneficiary of Filhart’s estate, the JQC argued. After being named to the Court of Appeals in late 2018, Coomer appointed his wife, Heidi, trustee and executor of Filhart’s estate and gave her power of attorney.

Coomer said he followed his client’s wishes every step of the way, but admitted violating Georgia’s rules of professional conduct by writing a will for Filhart of which he was a beneficiary.

“I wrote the will the way Jim Filhart wanted it to be written,” Coomer said Monday. “I had no objection to him changing what he wanted to change.”

On the stand Friday morning, Filhart described growing up poor in Michigan and working hard, living frugally and investing well in amassing a nest egg. He agreed to make the loans to Coomer because he thought it would earn more interest than a bank account, he said.

Filhart said he got upset in 2019 after receiving an $11,000 tax bill, the result of selling off a number of stocks the previous year to lend his money to Coomer. After demanding that Coomer pay him back quickly, Filhart asked another attorney to file a lawsuit against the judge on his behalf.

He said on Friday he was angry at his high tax bill but probably wouldn’t have taken legal action had he known what would result. He also said he thought Coomer was a good person.

“If I had thought all of this would happen, I don’t think I would have said a word,” Filhart said on the stand. “He’s a good man, but he screwed up this time. I bet he’ll never make that mistake again as long as he lives.

After its conclusion, the three-judge panel will decide whether Coomer violated the code of judicial conduct and, if so, what punishment he should receive. The judges’ recommendation will then go to the state Supreme Court, which will have the final say.

Coomer was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2010. He was the House Majority Whip in 2018, then Governor. Nathan Deal named him to the appeals court.

After being formally charged in December 2020, Coomer voluntarily suspended himself, with pay, from the 15-judge appeals court until the JQC case against him is resolved. Appeal court judges are paid about $190,000 a year.

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Last December, Coomer agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to settle charges that he violated state election laws. The state Ethics Commission had accused the judge, among other things, of illegally using contributions to support his private law practice and pay for his family’s trips abroad.

“If I had to do it over again, I would have done it differently. It sure is,” Coomer said of the campaign finance violations. “I made a few mistakes and I was willing to admit it.”

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

Credit: Natrice Miller / [email protected]

The judge’s ethics trial, which is being held in the Cobb County Courthouse courtroom, is expected to last at least two more days.

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