Superior Court Judge Bobby Peters acknowledged Wednesday that he was the second of two Columbus judges disciplined last year by the state’s judicial watchdog agency based upon information authorities received from embattled criminal defense attorney Mark Shelnutt.
Peters accepted a private reprimand from the Judicial Qualifications Commission in November for failing to disclose as a potential conflict a $7,800 loan he took from Shelnutt in June 2005, about a year after he won election to the local bench.
“The complaint was not deemed serious enough to merit a public sanction,” Peters said of the confidential discipline.
Georgia’s Code of Judicial Conduct says judges should “refrain from financial and business dealings with lawyers, litigants and others that tend to reflect adversely on their impartiality.” Peters said he believed his debt had been satisfied by a 2008 agreement in which he transferred to Shelnutt more than half of the royalties he was due for sales of Murder in Baker Company, a book that chronicled the 2003 murder in Columbus of Army Spc. Richard T. Davis.
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Peters said Shelnutt claimed he had destroyed the promissory note -- a written promise to repay the loan -- but then produced it for the authorities after he became the target of a felony prescription drug sting and began cooperating with investigators to mitigate his punishment.
“It’s really sad because he was a good friend,” Peters said. “All he had to do was come sit down and talk with me.”
Peters sought to emphasize that he presided over a “small number” of Shelnutt’s cases, and that he has since recused himself from proceedings involving the attorney and his law firm. But Shelnutt said he thought Peters, in some instances, had overcompensated to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
“I think he was so careful to not appear to rule for me that he ruled against me,” Shelnutt said.
Peters says there’s no evidence any of the cases had been tainted by the debt “or that Mr. Shelnutt received any preferential or adversary treatment.”
The judge’s reprimand was alluded to Oct. 2 during a hearing in Muscogee County Superior Court in which Shelnutt, facing felony distribution charges, pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts and was sentenced to probation. Special prosecutor Joe W. Hendricks Jr. credited Shelnutt with providing “substantial cooperation” that prompted the discipline of two Superior Court judges.
Hendricks declined to be more specific, but it was clear he included in that calculus the hastened retirement last September of Superior Court Judge Douglas C. Pullen. Shelnutt said he told investigators of what he considered to be improprieties on Pullen’s part, including the former judge’s acceptance of gifts for disbursing millions of dollars in cy pres funds -- unclaimed money in class-action settlements -- to universities and charities around the state.
Shelnutt, a former prosecutor, had been mentored by Pullen, and he was close friends with Peters.
But the information passed along about Peters and the loan, Shelnutt said, reflected his willingness to be “cooperative to a fault” rather than ill will toward his former friend. Shelnutt had campaigned for Peters in 2004 and said he “felt like I had given my blood to him.”
He said he didn’t know Peters had been formally disciplined until his guilty plea hearing.
“I wasn’t trying to get Bobby Peters in trouble,” said Shelnutt, who under the terms of his probation is required to move away from the six-county Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. “My figuring was I didn’t want to not say something that would later make it appear to them that I had not been cooperative. I just felt like it was a disclosure ... I never looked at them and said he did something wrong.”
Shelnutt and Peters inked the promissory note on June 10, 2005, and the judge initially agreed to repay the funds within 60 days, though the agreement included a provision for 5 percent annual interest. Peters said he needed the money because he was closing his law office, relocating his mother and his daughter had gotten married.
“It was like everything came together at one time,” he said. “It was really his idea. He said, ‘Let me help you.’”
Shelnutt remembered it differently: “He said he needed something and he needed it fast,” Shelnutt recalled. “I could tell he needed it.”
Shelnutt placed the cash in an envelope and walked outside his law office to hand it to Peters in his vehicle. Peters said they met outside because he wanted to give Shelnutt an antique musket; Shelnutt said he has no recollection of the gift.
The two men also offered conflicting accounts of Peters’ efforts to resolve the debt. Peters, in a meeting with the JQC, presented recorded conversations with Shelnutt in which he said he was trying to work out paying the debt.
But Shelnutt said Peters hadn’t made a serious effort to square the loan, though he acknowledged he had not pressured him to pay it off.
“Bobby Peters never called me up ever and said, ‘Man, let me give you some money on that debt,’” Shelnutt said. “What he would do was, from time to time, he would say, ‘I really do need to get that money back to you.’”
Shelnutt and Peters, before he was elected judge, represented co-defendants in the murder proceedings against a group of soldiers spawned by Davis’ death, a notorious case that garnered national attention and inspired the film “In the Valley of Elah.” Both men also assisted author Cilla McCain in her research for the book.
In December 2008, Shelnutt signed an agreement with McCain agreeing to accept “as full payment of a previous financial loan” 15 percent of the royalties due to Peters. The judge, under the agreement, was still to receive 10 percent of any royalties received by the author. “Acceptance of this arrangement will also serve as your agreement to consider that loan paid in full,” the agreement reads.
McCain, in a letter to the Judicial Qualifications Commission, vouched for Peters and explained that, “Even with steady sales, it can take a long time for books to realize the profits necessary for royalty disbursements.”
“He may have made a technical mistake in accepting the loan,” the author added of Peters, “but I do not believe there was anything sinister or corrupt involved.”
Shelnutt said he still considers the debt outstanding because he “hasn’t received a nickel” in royalties, and Peters “knows it.” Peters said he would “feel better paying him” off.
“If he feels that way, I’ll give him the money,” Peters said. “Now that his case is over, we can sit down and resolve this.”