Bar Review Panel advises Eddings be disbarred

A State Bar of Georgia Review Panel has recommended that Columbus attorney Michael Eddings be disbarred for his role in the theft of more than $2.3 million from his trust account that was discovered in October 2011.

The final decision will rest with the Supreme Court.

The Review Panel report and case record will be filed with the Georgia Supreme Court. Eddings and the State Bar have 30 days to file exceptions to the report. If either side files an exception, the other side will then have 30 days to respond.

Eddings' fate had been in the hands of the Review Panel since October 2014 when the attorney and the State Bar both appealed the initial decision by a special master, Katherine L. McArthur, who recommended Eddings' law license be suspended for one year and he have a plan in place to repay 10 percent of the stolen money.

Eddings and the State Bar both appealed the special master's decision to the Review Panel. Eddings contended the recommended punishment was too severe and the State Bar maintained it was not strong enough.

Since the theft was discovered, Eddings has steadfastly maintained 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. In the April 2014 hearing before the special master, Sonya Eddings admitted that she was responsible for the theft and said she purposefully hid the information from her then-husband.

Michael Eddings could not be reached for comment on Friday.

The Review Panel's recommendation was filed with the state Supreme Court late Thursday, and it asserted that Michael Eddings was ultimately responsible for safeguarding his trust account and that he demonstrated "an extreme disregard" by not doing so.

Eddings "was on notice of multiple examples of irregularities in his trust account; he lost the services of Stewart Title & Guaranty Company because of issues related to his trust account; he continued to rely on the same person to explain these discrepancies and manage the accounts; and he never retained an independent audit of his accounts in spite of this information," the report stated. The Review Panel also took exception with the way Eddings has handled himself since the thefts were discovered.

"In addition, he has not made restitution to the grievants in this matter; he has not admitted to any violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct; and he has not expressed remorse for his misconduct," the report stated.

Michael Eddings faced 10 complaints alleging 34 violations of state bar rules. They all stem from the real estate business in which he was handling as many as 80 closings a month.

William J. Cobb, State Bar of Georgia assistant general counsel, sought disbarment.

"The State Bar agrees with the recommendation of discipline by the Review Panel of the State Disciplinary Board, and is pleased that the case can now proceed to the Georgia Supreme Court for final decision and imposition of discipline," Cobb stated in an email.

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.

"The special master failed to consider the actual harm suffered by the grievants in this case, pointing out the resolution of the civil suit did not resolve all of the losses in the underlying transactions," the State Bar contended to the Review Panel.

On Monday, the state Supreme Court ordered Eddings reprimanded for questioning jailed suspects without their attorneys' consent when he turned to criminal defense law after trust account fraud was discovered in his practice. The reprimand on Monday was for separate incidents not related to the ongoing issues with Eddings' trust account.

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 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.