The Georgia Supreme Court on Monday reprimanded Columbus attorney Michael Eddings for questioning jailed suspects without their attorneys’ consent after he turned to criminal defense law after trust account fraud was discovered in his practice.
Eddings, once a prominent real estate closing attorney, fell from grace in October 2011 when more than $2 million was found missing from his law firm’s trust account. He is facing State Bar of Georgia disciplinary action for his role in that scheme, but no action has been taken and it has been in a holding pattern since October 2014.
Since the theft was discovered, Eddings has steadfastly maintained that he had nothing to do with the fraud and had no knowledge of it. He has repeatedly contended the scheme was orchestrated and carried out by his then-wife and office manager Sonya Eddings.
The reprimand on Monday was for a separate incident not related to the ongoing issues with Eddings’ trust account, said State Bar of Georgia Assistant General Counsel William J. Cobb.
In May 2014, Eddings was found in contempt of court and fined $3,000 by Superior Court Judge Arthur Smith III. The judge also ordered Eddings to report his contempt citation to the general counsel for the State Bar of Georgia. Monday’s Supreme Court action was the result of that.
Eddings admitted speaking with three suspects who were potential witnesses against his client in a case involving a series of 2012 armed robberies. While admitting to the allegations, Eddings said his actions had no malicious intent.
Eddings had been found in contempt for a similar complaint by Superior Court Judge William Rumer in July 2013. He was fined $500 for obstructing the administration of justice.
A public reprimand, according to the State Bar of Georgia’s website, declares the respondent's conduct to have been improper but does not limit the right to practice. Michael Eddings, who is now practicing in Atlanta and Columbus, was facing possible disbarment or suspension.
“The reprimand is unfortunate,” Eddings said Monday morning in an emailed statement. “At the time when this incident occurred I was paranoid thinking my community believed I had a role in the theft that took place at my office, and other lawyers and judges were probably unsure about my ethics at the time as well. Under better circumstances this probably could have been resolved internally.”
Eddings said he has now regained the trust of the legal community.
“I strongly believe I've regained the trust of those in the legal community and community at large ... as the truth of one's character always prevails over time. I've learned an important lesson about about respecting the boundaries of witnesses whom have legal counsel. Those boundaries must not be crossed under any circumstance no matter how benign one may think the situation is.”
In his petition for voluntary discipline in the 2014 case, Eddings stated that he was “under excruciating stress from undergoing intense investigations from private corporations, the FBI and the State Bar of Georgia in an effort to clear his name and reputation. There is no question that living under such stress for a long period of time was a contributing factor to the petitioner’s lapse in what is otherwise his more prudent judgment.”
Cobb, in his answer to Eddings filing, was not buying it. Cobb cites the “11 pending disciplinary matters arising from massive thefts” from his trust account.
“How that could have caused or even contributed to respondent’s successive incidents of identical misconduct in this case is not suggested, nor is the contention credible given the admitted facts,” Cobb wrote.
While this closes the issues involving his criminal practice, the matter involving the missing money from his legal trust account is ongoing.
In May 2015, the Ledger-Enquirer reported that Sonya Eddings was the target of a federal criminal investigation and had been given court-appointed counsel. Currently, there has been no indictment or charges filed. No criminal charges have ever been brought against Michael Eddings, though federal civil complaints by the title insurance company caught in the financial shortfall were settled out of court.
Michael Eddings said he would not comment on other legal matters.
Michael Eddings is facing 10 complaints alleging 34 violations of state bar rules in the unrelated matter. They all stem from the real estate business in which he was handling as many as 80 closings a month. During an April 2014 hearing in front of Special Master Katherine L. McArthur, Eddings fought to save his license to practice law while the State Bar of Georgia was pushing for him to lose it.
In October 2014, the special master recommended that Eddings’ law license be suspended for one year and he have a plan in place to repay 10 percent of the nearly $2 million stolen from his law firm’s trust account. Both Eddings and the State Bar of Georgia appealed that decision.
Eddings’ contended the suspension was too harsh a punishment, according to court records. The state ban maintained that he “should be disbarred with eligibility to apply for readmission conditioned on having made full restitution.”
Cobb, the State Bar of Georgia’s assistant general counsel, would not comment on the ongoing proceeding.
In 2012, First American Title Insurance of California sued Michael and Sonya Eddings, all of their restaurant holdings, and Columbus Bank & Trust in U.S. District Court, Middle District of Georgia. First American and CB&T settled out of court in January 2014, and terms of the deal were not released. In dismissing the case in early March 2014, Judge Clay Land issued a $1.99 million judgment for First American against Michael Eddings and a $2.09 million judgment against Sonya Eddings.
Prior to running her husband’s law practice, Sonya Eddings worked at CB&T and its parent company Synovus through 2005. The law firm’s trust accounts were held at CB&T.
“She had the expertise to cover up or disguise her wrongdoing because of her education, prior banking tenure, and experience, and she has testified that is what she did,” the special master wrote in her 2014 findings. “She was viewed as above questioning or reproach by CB&T as a valued past employee and by Michael Eddings because she was highly trained as an expert in the field, and because she was his wife.”
McArthur also noted that the funds misdirected from the trust account went into Eddings Holding, which owned and operated two Coffee Beanery stores and the Uptown Fish House restaurant.