Attorney Mark Shelnutt pleaded no contest Tuesday to reduced charges in a 2010 prescription drug case, inking a plea deal that requires he move away from Columbus and the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit -- at least temporarily. A court hearing also shed new light on Shelnutt's role in helping authorities with a judicial misconduct investigation.
In offering a deal that, in all likelihood, will keep Shelnutt out of jail, special prosecutor Joe W. Hendricks Jr. said he took into account Shelnutt's "substantial cooperation" in a Judicial Qualifications Commission inquiry that resulted in the discipline of two Superior Court judges. Shelnutt, 49, faced eight felony counts of distributing a controlled substance but was allowed to plead to two misdemeanor counts of possessing prescription pills outside their original container.
"I'm very glad that it's done and it's over with," said Shelnutt, a well-known attorney facing his second high-profile prosecution. "It's been hanging over me for a couple of years. That just takes its toll on you, it just does."
Shelnutt was sentenced to two years probation as a first offender, and he was ordered to complete the state bar's Lawyer Assistance Program with the goal of abstinence from prescription narcotics. Shelnutt may return to Columbus after he's completed his probation, which may be suspended early after he completes the assistance program.
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Asked why leaving Columbus was a part of the deal, Hendricks said, "We just thought that would be in the best interest of his recovery, would be to be out of this area."
Shelnutt said he has embraced the opportunity to return to his native Atlanta, where he has family and plans to open a satellite law office. He emphasized that he will continue practicing law in Columbus and retain his pending cases.
Defense attorney Charles Cox of Macon said the plea won't affect Shelnutt's law license because the misdemeanor container charges do not involve "moral turpitude," where the underlying conduct relates to his fitness to practice law, the standard applied by the bar when determining misconduct.
"We're glad to have this resolved so that Mark can move on with his life," Cox said.
Hendricks, in his veiled reference to the JQC investigation, seemed to allude to the early retirement last year of Superior Court Judge Douglas C. Pullen, a former prosecutor who had been a mentor to Shelnutt years ago. Hendricks declined to identify the second judge he said had been disciplined, saying that "as much as will be said about that will be said when the file is closed."
Hendricks serves as district attorney of the Appalachian Judicial Circuit, in north Georgia, and took on the case after the disqualification of District Attorney Julia Slater, who worked with Shelnutt before her 2008 election. A politically active lawyer, Shelnutt had supported Slater in her victory over former District Attorney Gray Conger.Shelnutt entered his plea before visiting Senior Judge Tracy Moulton Jr., who was appointed to the case after the local judiciary recused itself. The charges stemmed from an investigation involving Shelnutt's former secretary, Brandy Rivera, who worked undercover for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and recorded Shelnutt giving her prescription pills.
Rivera works as a legal assistant to Slater but had been a longtime employee and confidante of Shelnutt, one he likened to a sister. Without identifying Rivera, Hendricks said the investigation began after Shelnutt had conversations with her that "brought about concern on the part of the District Attorney's Office" and prompted the GBI inquiry.
"This confidential informant related that Mr. Shelnutt was sharing his prescription pain medication with her when they would meet for lunchtime meals," Hendricks said.
Rivera recorded the distributions during rendezvous with Shelnutt at the Red Lobster on 13th Street and elsewhere in Columbus. Shelnutt gave her a single pill on three occasions, two pills at three encounters and three pills once toward the end of the investigation, according to arrest warrants. "It was not a profit-type transaction," Hendricks said. "He was simply sharing his prescription medication, which is, of course, a violation of the law."
Agents arrested Shelnutt in September 2010 on eight felony counts of distributing a controlled substance. He was charged with providing Rivera Xanax, Oxycodone and Hydrocodone tablets on seven separate occasions.
The charges came less than a year after a federal jury acquitted Shelnutt of a list of money laundering and attempted bribery charges.
"I'm glad it got disposed of today," Shelnutt said. "Hopefully, we can just go forward from here.