After a series of meetings Monday with an investigator and the director of the Judicial Qualifications Commission, embattled Muscogee Superior Court Judge Douglas C. Pullen faxed his retirement letter to Gov. Nathan Deal.
He has spent 16 years on the bench and 40 years as a prosecutor and judge. His final day will be Sept. 1.
Pullen, who was planning to leave at the end of the year, has been at the center of a judicial misconduct probe for weeks.
In an interview less than an hour after he sent his resignation to the governor, Pullen denied he was pressured to quit by the JQC, a state agency that has oversight of Georgia’s more than 2,000 judges.
“The only person who has asked for my retirement is Mrs. Pullen,” the judge said of his wife, Patti. The two spent a long weekend in the North Georgia mountains.
The pressure on Pullen increased in recent weeks when JQC Director Jeff Davis and Chief Investigator Richard Hyde had been reviewing some of Pullen’s cases with special prosecutor Joe Hendricks, who was appointed by the attorney general to investigate potential criminal conduct in the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit after local District Attorney Julia Slater recused herself.
Prior to leaving on vacation, Pullen met with Hendricks and at least one other person who the judge declined to identify.
Monday morning, Davis and Hyde were back in the Government Center.
They met at least twice with Pullen. The two men were seen coming out of his 10th floor chambers at 12:41 p.m., then returning at 3:30 p.m. An hour later, Davis came out of Pullen’s office for about five minutes and went back in. Not long after that, Davis, Hyde and Pullen emerged, all three men laughing.
The judge would not reveal the topic of their discussions, and Davis also declined to discuss details of the meetings.
“I am not going to comment until a consent agreement is filed with the Supreme Court,” Davis said.
Any agreement between a judge and the JQC must be filed with the state’s highest court. The commission’s investigations are not public until either formal charges are filed in the Supreme Court or a consent order is filed resolving the probe.
It is unclear if the judicial investigations extend beyond Pullen, but Hendricks said last week he had not “limited it to a particular judge.” Hendricks could not be reached for comment Monday.
A number of judges throughout Georgia have resigned in recent years rather than face formal JQC charges.
Pullen becomes the second Muscogee County Superior Court judge to resign under JQC scrutiny. Judge Robert Johnston III resigned in February 2010 after a meeting with Hyde in the Government Center parking deck, Johnston confirmed at the time. The JQC never filed formal charges against Johnston, who died 13 months later. William C. Rumer was appointed by former Gov. Sonny Perdue to replace Johnston.
Deal will appoint Pullen’s successor after candidates are screened by the Judicial Nominating Commission. That commission is co-chaired by Columbus resident and Atlanta attorney Pete Robinson, a partner with Troutman Sanders LLP. Robinson was vice chairman of Deal’s transition team last year.
Pullen recently admitted to “the biggest mistake” of his career. Convicted child molester Melvin C. Moseley, whom Pullen sentenced in 2002 to 15 years, walked free until last week when he was taken into custody following a hearing in front of Judge John Allen.
The case fell between the cracks for about eight years.
“The only thing that I truly regret is what happened in the Moseley case,” Pullen said Monday. “I have made some mistakes — some I know about and some I don’t — but that one truly tears me up.”
Pullen, who was district attorney from 1989 to 1995, built a reputation as a no-nonsense prosecutor. He worked on a number of death penalty cases and was part of the prosecution team for convicted Stocking Strangler Carlton Gary.
“Of all the people to leave on the streets, I left a child molester there,” Pullen said. “I can work another 40 years and it will not change the fact that I did that.”
Asked if he’d “fired himself” over the Moseley case, Pullen said, “I wouldn’t put it that way, but if you do, I won’t demand a retraction.”
The JQC and special prosecutor Hendricks have also been looking into a large number of class action suits in Pullen’s court that allowed the judge to give away millions of dollars. Since the late 1990s, Pullen has handled more than 30 class action suits, resulting in more than $33.8 million in pools of leftover money known as “cy pres” or remainder funds.
Pullen has approved dozens of contributions to universities and other organizations in Columbus and around the state, according to a review of hundreds of documents provided to the Ledger-Enquirer by attorneys who filed the suits and administered the funds.
One of the largest benefactors was Pullen’s alma mater, Mercer University in Macon. The judge has directed more than $5.76 million to the university’s medical and law schools. He said last week he planned to teach one course at Mercer’s Walter F. George School of Law next year.On Monday, Pullen took exception to any accusation that he had not handled the money properly.
“You expected to catch me lining my pockets,” he said when asked about the remainder funds. “The headline that wasn’t in the paper and could have been was ‘Pullen didn’t steal anybody’s money.’”