For a second time embattled Columbus attorney Michael Eddings has been fined for contempt of court for questioning jailed suspects without their attorneys’ consent.
In a hearing today before Muscogee Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III, Eddings admitted speaking with three suspects who were potential witnesses against his client in a case involving a series of 2012 armed robberies.
Smith fined Eddings a total of $3,000, or $1,000 for each of the other clients, and ordered him never again to commit such misconduct. The judge also ordered Eddings to report his contempt citation to the general counsel for the State Bar of Georgia.
While admitting to the allegations, Eddings said his actions had no malicious intent.
In July 2013, Judge William Rumer found Eddings in contempt for witness tampering and fined him $500 for questioning robbery suspect Jamar Warner, who was a codefendant with Eddings’ client Dimitrius Gordon, but was represented by attorney Susan Henderson.
Henderson had arranged a plea deal for Warner in exchange for his testimony, but Warner changed his mind after a private meeting with Eddings at the jail. During the contempt hearing, Warner testified Eddings told him he could go free without a guilty plea.
This time Eddings not only is accused of talking to one of Henderson’s clients without her knowledge, but also questioning codefendants represented by defense attorneys Will Kirby and Robert L. Wadkins Jr.
Three of the suspects are charged in a multi-count indictment alleging they committed a series of armed robberies from June 1 through June 5, 2012. Of those three, Eddings represents Anthony Jones; Henderson represents Iman Deloach; and Kirby represents Dearius Ranson.
Wadkins represents Joshua Dodson, who was not indicted with the other three, but remains a potential witness against Eddings' client.
According to the motion for contempt that Assistant District Attorney Wesley Lambertus filed May 16, Eddings on May 12 went to the jail and talked to Ransom, Deloach and Dodson about his client’s case without their attorney’s knowledge, a violation of Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct.
In court on May 14, Eddings admitted he had spoken to the other three defendants and had recorded the conversations, Lambertus wrote. Eddings claimed he tried to call Kirby before the interviews, but couldn’t reach the other lawyer, the prosecutor said.
Lambertus reported that when Henderson asked Eddings why he didn’t call her before talking to her client, Eddings in reference to his previous contempt hearing said she “filed a motion of contempt against him.” When she replied she had not filed that motion, Eddings countered that she “testified against him” during the July 15, 2013, contempt hearing.
Lambertus asked Smith to find Eddings in contempt, reprimand him and bar him from engaging in such conduct in any future case.
“The state also asks this court to sanction Michael Eddings in any way the court deems appropriate,” Lambertus’ motion concluded. “Finally, the state asks this court to recommend to the state bar that Michael Eddings be disciplined.”
Eddings today told Judge Smith that he voluntarily will withdraw from representing Anthony Jones.
Eddings has other professional issues yet to be resolved: He was a prominent real estate closing attorney until it was revealed more than $2 million from his firm’s escrow account was misappropriated. His ex-wife Sonya L. Eddings took the blame for converting the funds, saying she did so without his knowledge.
With his trust accounts frozen since October 2011, Eddings had to quit handling real estate closings and turned to criminal defense work.
Eddings faced a State Bar of Georgia evidentiary hearing April 30 to answer charges that could cost him his law license.
Michael Eddings faced 10 complaints alleging 34 violations of state bar rules, all stemming from Eddings’ real estate business which handled up to 80 closings a month.
Asked then how $2 million could be misplaced without his noticing, Eddings said: "The honest, truthful answer is it was clever and skillful management by Sonya juggling those files.”
During her testimony, Sonya Eddings outlined five years of deceit between 2006 and 2011 when she was transferring money from the law firm's trust account into an account for one of the Eddings’ businesses, The Coffee Beanery.
"I knew what I was doing wasn't who I was and was totally against what he stands for, but I got into a situation I couldn't get out of," Sonya Eddings said.
She said she not only had access to the law firm's escrow and operating accounts, but was the only person in the firm who had the key code to get into the online accounts.
She previously had a $100,000 a year job with Synovus, the parent company of Columbus Bank and Trust, and she used that experience to pull off the scheme: "Sonya was a CB&T insider," Michael Eddings said. "She was known and respected by those at the bank. She got a pass."
The trust account had about 50 overdrafts, some for more than $100,000, yet Eddings said he did not know about them and CB&T never alerted him.
Sonya Eddings said she would get the law firm's mail each morning and make sure any notice regarding the accounts did not reach her husband. She also altered bank statements before showing them to her husband, to remove any negative balances.
The fraud came to light in October 2011, Sonya Eddings said: She was out of town when the law office received a call from a client complaining that a mortgage payoff had not been made. She immediately transferred the money, but it was too late: First American Title Insurance, which insured the Eddings' closings, got involved. Auditors came in, and Sonya Eddings confessed in a written statement.
CB&T also froze Eddings' business and personal accounts. At the time, the Eddings were building a $1 million home with an $800,000 construction loan from CB&T.
First American later sued Michael and Sonya Eddings, all of their restaurant holdings and CB&T in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia. First American and CB&T settled out of court, and terms of the deal were not released. In dismissing the case in early March, Judge Clay Land issued a $1.99 million judgment for First American against Michael Eddings and a $2.09 million judgment against Sonya Eddings.