The highest court in Georgia says Atlanta City Councilman H. Lamar Willis must stop practicing law.
The Georgia Supreme Court this morning ordered the 12-year council vet and private attorney be disbarred following ethics violations that took place in July 2011 when Willis deposited $30,000 of a client's personal injury settlement into his personal bank account.
According to the court's opinion, Willis showed "extreme disregard of his duty to safeguard the property of a client," obstructed the the court's proceedings by not responding to a formal complaint, and showed "indifference" to paying back the money he owed.
Here's the opinion (official document can be read here):
In an opinion released today, the high court has found that Willis violated a number of rules contained in the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct that govern the legal profession. Among the violations, Willis represented a client in a personal injury action who was to be paid $30,000 after the parties settled. Rather than distribute the funds to his client and according to the court order, however, Willis deposited the check into his personal or business account.
The Review Panel of the State Bar of Georgia, which recommended Willis's disbarment, found "not credible" his assertion that depression led to his failure to respond to the formal complaint against him. Willis himself "points to his continued active involvement in community affairs during this same period, which appears to have taken priority over his obligation to his client and duty to respond to disciplinary authorities," today's opinion says. "The Review Panel found no factors in mitigation of discipline, and in aggravation, found multiple offenses, obstruction of the disciplinary process by not answering the complaint, and indifference to making restitution."
"Having reviewed the record, we agree with the Review Panel that the facts in this case demonstrate Willis's extreme disregard of his duty to safeguard the property of a client, which undermines the public trust," the opinion says. "Accordingly, we hereby order that the name of Henry Lamar Willis be removed from the rolls of persons entitled to practice law in the State of Georgia."
Back in February, a court-appointed lawyer recommended that the court should decide to strip Willis of his license to practice law in Georgia. The review followed the State Bar of Georgia's claims that Willis broke rules against "dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation" and failed to respond to a formal complaint last November.
At the time, Willis told CL that while administrative parts of his legal proceeding "had fallen through the cracks" amid the "emotional tumult" of a divorce, the matter was" transparent to the client."
We've reached out to Willis for comment. If we hear back, we'll post an update.
UPDATE, 11:22 a.m.: In a prepared statement, Willis apologizes for his past actions and owns up to his violations. But he says he disagrees with the court's claim that he hasn't repaid his client and co-counsel:
Two years ago, during a time when I was facing tremendous personal challenges, I made a grievous professional error. I acknowledge it, apologize for it and I accept the repercussions of it. Although the Supreme Court's ruling comes down today, that time has passed. The defendants have been repaid contrary to the language in the Court's opinion. ... I am moving on with my life and my re-election to the Atlanta City Council.
The emphasis above comes from Willis, not CL.
UPDATE, 1:41 p.m.: Andre Dickens, who's challenging Willis for his Post 3 At-Large seat, has chimed in on his opponent's disbarment.
It is abundantly clear that Mr. Willis operates without any ethical boundaries or even the bare minimum of care or concern for other," Dickens says in a statement. "We believe the Court's decision to disbar Mr. Willis should disqualify him from holding public office. We believe that people who have been barred from practicing law in the State of Georgia for unethical behavior should not be allowed to serve in a lawmaking capacity."
Willis is expected to hold a press conference at City Hall sometime this afternoon to address the court's decision.
UPDATE, 2:30 p.m.: Mayor Kasim Reed, who's been an active supporter of Willis during his time in office, tells CL the following about the councilman's disbarment:
Lamar Willis has been a strong and capable member of the Atlanta City Council for more than a decade. It is unfortunate that he has made significant mistakes in his private law practice during a very difficult time in his personal life. While I have not reviewed the decision, I respect the ruling of the Georgia Supreme Court on this matter.
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