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Judge Doug Pullen's 'Gifts': Records reveal judge directed millions to Mercer and Morehouse, gained recognition

The video captures Superior Court Judge Douglas C. Pullen in his element.

Ever avuncular and wielding witticisms, Pullen holds sway in a room full of future doctors at the Morehouse School of Medicine. The audience included students who attribute their scholarships to Pullen’s contributions of money left over from class-action lawsuits settled in his court, a legal benevolence that has become increasingly popular.

A baritone narrator praises Pullen’s “extraordinary philanthropy” and “unswerving integrity on the bench” in announcing the judge’s receipt this spring of the Louis C. Brown Vanguard Award at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta.

“I’m an old country judge who had an opportunity to do something good,” Pullen tells the audience, saying it warms his heart to meet young people he’s helped.

Over the past decade, Pullen has quietly become accustomed to doling out huge sums of other people’s money, and at times receiving public recognition as a major philanthropist. He’s approved more than $33.8 million -- substantially more than any other judge in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit -- in contributions to dozens of charities, universities and other organizations in Columbus and around the state, according to a review of hundreds of documents provided to the Ledger-Enquirer under the Georgia Open Records Act.

The contributions included millions of dollars given to Mercer University, Pullen’s alma mater, where he intends to teach a law course next semester. The money came from at least 32 class-action cases that yielded unclaimed remainder funds because thousands of plaintiffs could not be located.

The contributions had, for the most part, flown under the radar until the cases drew scrutiny from the Judicial Qualifications Commission, the state judicial oversight agency that has subpoenaed records from two major Columbus law firms. Joe W. Hendricks Jr., a special prosecutor appointed by the state attorney general to explore potentially criminal acts within the circuit, also has reviewed the cases.

It remains unclear why investigators are combing through the class-action cases, but Pullen’s public recognition for his role in distributing the remainder funds could raise ethical questions about the appearance of benefits and impropriety, according to some legal experts.

“I’ve not heard of a situation where a judge was praised for approving (remainder fund) distributions, but I have heard of an instance where the defense counsel got an award for directing money in a good direction,” said Stephen Gardner, director of litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based watchdog. “A judge really ought to stand above these issues because it is his job to be impartial and to watch out for the class members’ interests.”

Pullen’s office is littered with items related to the contributions, including photos and an honorary doctorate he received in 2005 from Mercer University’s Walter F. George School of Law. The judge has approved at least nine donations to the university totaling $5.76 million, according to bank and court records.

He plans to teach a two-hour seminar once a week at the law school next year, but he said the contributions had nothing to do with his landing a job there.

“I stayed there for seven years and they were foolish enough to give me two degrees,” Pullen said in one of several recent interviews, adding that all of the contributions in his cases have been fully accounted for and were distributed in keeping with the law.

William D. Underwood, the president of Mercer and a professor of law, said Pullen has been among “the most supportive alumni at the university for many years now.”

“I can’t think of a better use for those funds than to support education,” Underwood said of remainder fund awards. “Judge Pullen doesn’t let us have events to recognize him -- I wish he would.”

Pullen has been recognized by Morehouse at least twice, including one event last year when he had his picture taken with basketball legend Magic Johnson and was given a birthday cake in the shape of a pig. A spokeswoman for Morehouse School of Medicine did not respond to requests for comment.

The philanthropic role is a departure for Pullen, who earns $164,588 a year and says he never imagined having so much money at his disposal. But he wears the Santa hat proudly. “I wasn’t thinking in these terms and then all of a sudden” Pullen said, referring to the beginning of a long stretch of class-action suits.

Sources confirmed last week that the judicial investigations had expanded to include several civil cases Pullen has presided over. It’s been a rough couple of weeks for the 66-year-old jurist. He recently acknowledged egregious blunders in the criminal case of Melvin Charles Moseley Sr., a 70-year-old who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for child molestation, but managed to remain free for nearly eight years. That case also has been reviewed by investigators.

Pullen, who plans to retire this year, said the investigations have created a cloud of speculation that has marred the end of his 40-year legal career. Prolonged scrutiny is unfamiliar territory for Pullen, and aside from a handful of reversals from appellate courts, Pullen’s authority has rarely been challenged.

The self-styled “poster child” for the death penalty has not faced opposition in an election for public office since winning election as district attorney in 1988.

“The downside of leaving now is that this is going to be my legacy,” Pullen said, declining to discuss the JQC investigation due to the agency’s confidentiality rules. “That is painful.”

Controversial giving

The contributions Pullen has approved stemmed from a series of class-action settlements that resulted in pools of residual money known as “cy pres” or remainder funds. (“Cy pres” is a French term adapted from an expression that means “as near as possible.”)

A review of Pullen’s cases shows a considerable amount of money has been given to educational institutions. The top seven single contributions went toward education, including a $3 million check to the University System of Georgia Foundation. Mercer also tops that list with single contributions of $1.65 million and $1.5 million.

Nearly $7 million in remainder funds came from a landmark $150 million settlement in Mabry v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. That case featured a class of more than 700,000 plaintiffs that challenged the company’s failure to pay policyholders for the diminished value of vehicles repaired after a crash.

Attorneys on the case said they couldn’t locate all of the plaintiffs. Giving away money, it turns out, can be a difficult proposition when the plaintiffs don’t even know they are involved in litigation, let alone entitled to a piece of the settlement.

“As hard as you try, you are not going to be able to deliver every dime,” said Paul Kilpatrick Jr., a partner with Pope, McGlamry, Kilpatrick, Morrison & Norwood, a Columbus law firm that has handled more than $27.75 million in remainder funds. Pullen administered about 30 diminished value remainder fund accounts with that firm totaling nearly $24 million, according to records. By comparison, during the same 2002-2004 period the United Way of the Chattahoochee Valley raised about $19 million.

The distribution of remainder funds, a somewhat obscure area of the law, has stirred spirited discussion in legal communities as charities have increasingly lobbied law firms for money. The American Law Institute last year took the position that the best thing to do with leftover money is to distribute it to the plaintiffs “or people who look like them,” said Samuel Issacharoff, a professor at New York University School of Law who served as the reporter for the Principles of the Law of Aggregate Litigation of the American Law Institute.

“Unfortunately, a lot of people like to play Santa Claus, and there’s an unfortunate coincidence of lawyers wanting to make themselves out to be great public heroes and also playing to the belief of the courts that they should be entitled to make amends for societal wrongs on a very broad basis,” Issacharoff said in a phone interview. “What has happened, unfortunately, is it has become a charity sweepstakes, and judges have been drawn into this in ways that starts looking like they are playing favorites on a non-judicial basis.”

Critics say the potential of benefits for judges and lawyers underscores a need to limit charitable contributions and reform the way they are distributed.

“The problem is that there aren’t restrictions in place,” said Ted Frank, a tort-reform advocate and founder of the Washington, D.C.,-based Center for Class Action Fairness who has pushed for attorneys to return more remainder funds to plaintiffs. “You certainly have academics and others speaking out against the unfettered slush funds aspect of it, but the courts have not yet policed themselves in this regard to a large extent.”

Attorneys often are left with few options. They can redistribute leftover money to plaintiffs, but that distribution can cost more than the actual payout.

Advocates for reform have suggested giving the money to the government, but this option is often criticized as not benefiting the plaintiffs. An even more unpopular move is to return unclaimed funds to the defendant.

“We were not about to send money back to the insurance companies who tried to steal the refunds in the first place,” said Jim Butler, a partner at Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer who has settled several class-action cases involving credit insurance fraud. “For years those defendants denied they owed anything to anybody.”

Butler and other attorneys say they are proud of their role in the contributions.

“Frankly, we’re no different than most folks -- being able to give money to worthy causes is a gratifying experience,” Butler said. In the diminished value cases, attorneys insisted the remainder funds be disbursed as charitable donations and not be returned to the insurance companies, Kilpatrick said.

Doling out others’ money

The JQC has subpoenaed records outlining the remainder funds from Pope McGlamry and Butler Wooten. Though Pullen presided over most of the diminished value cases, Judge Frank Jordan Jr. handled two with Pope McGlamry that produced about $3.75 million in remainder funds.

Chief Judge John D. Allen also has handled remainder fund accounts. Allen had two cases that totaled about $1.2 million in leftover money over the past four years. Like Pullen and Jordan, Allen worked together with the attorneys in handling the contributions.

Remainder fund awards can be a pleasant surprise for nonprofits.

“It’s sort of like if you’re in the nonprofit world and somebody dies, and you get a check that you didn’t know was coming that helps propel and stabilize your organization,” said Roger Martin, executive director of the local Chattahoochee RiverWarden, which has received $250,000 in remainder funds since last fall.

Joel Wooten of Butler Wooten helped settle a class-action suit against North Central Life that produced a remainder fund of more than $500,000. He said Allen had two “primary goals” in the distribution of remainder funds.

“One, he wanted to give a significant sum to consumer groups and consumer education to help raise awareness,” Wooten said in an interview. “He also wanted some of the money to go to groups in Columbus, Ga., that do good works for good people.”

Gardner, the director of litigation for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said it is improper for remainder funds to be distributed to a defendant’s own charity, or “pet projects” of plaintiffs’ attorneys or judges.

“Cy pres funds must be awarded to whatever entity comes the closest to giving the money to the class members themselves,” he said. Wooten said Pullen “was very much in favor of donating to the black medical schools” in the credit insurance fraud cases because many of the plaintiffs were of lower income. “He thought the graduates would serve the minority population,” Wooten said.

Pullen often required money be spent for specific purposes.

“Rural health care is something that’s important to me because I’ve had friends to die because they didn’t have access to adequate medical care,” Pullen said, noting that four of the six counties in his circuit are “exceptionally rural.”

Attorneys in the Mabry diminished value case found common ground in distributing money to Emory Healthcare System.

Neal Pope of Pope McGlamry said he had a heart transplant there more than 18 years ago.

“Emory is a very special place in the state of Georgia, to tell you the truth,” Pope said.

John A. Chandler, an Atlanta attorney who defended State Farm in the Mabry case, had an operation at Emory as well, Pope said. Chandler, now a partner at King & Spalding, did not respond to interview requests.

Pope said he saw no ethical violations in Pullen’s recognitions for his role in distributing remainder funds.

“Judges get recognized all the time,” Pope said. “They are underpaid and overworked for the most part, and about the only thing they get is recognition for the work they do.”