published Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Walker County to judge: Pay 53 dismissed traffic tickets

AT A GLANCE

$100,000: Roberts' annual pay as judge

$94,000: What Roberts said he earned annually as assistant district attorney

$83,184: What Roberts actually earned, on average, in 2011 and 2010

Source: Documents filed at Walker County Superior Court

State Court Judge Bruce E. Roberts filed a lawsuit in October arguing that Walker County, Ga., shorted him $72,000 in pay.

Officials shot back last week, arguing that Roberts needs to reimburse the county for dismissing 53 traffic cases on Aug. 3 after Roberts lost his judgeship in the July 31 primary election to LaFayette, Ga., attorney Billy Mullinax.

Roberts threw out the tickets "in an attempt to potentially cause financial harm to the Walker County voters and taxpayers who had turned him out of office by a landslide margin," states County Attorney Don Oliver's 20-page response filed Friday.

"[Roberts] is liable to the county and its taxpayers for the amount of fines and forfeitures that would have been collected from those 53 cases, each of whom stood ready and willing to plead guilty at the time the cases were dismissed," Oliver wrote.

Neither Oliver nor Roberts has wanted to discuss the lawsuit before it's heard in court.

But when he dismissed the traffic tickets, Roberts said it was a spur-of-the-moment decision, and it wouldn't happen again. He said it was a "nice gesture, sort of an amnesty thing."

"I seriously doubt that Judge Mullinax will ever do that," Roberts told the Walker County Messenger.

Gov. Nathan Deal appointed Roberts on Oct. 3 to replace Judge C. Donald Peppers Sr., who retired. Roberts' lawsuit argues he was entitled to earn Peppers' $172,102 annual salary.

Under the Georgia Constitution, an incumbent judge's salary can't be reduced during the term of appointment, argued Roberts' Summerville, Ga.-based attorney, Archibald Farrar Jr.

Oliver responded that Roberts' pay was never reduced from the $100,000 annual salary Roberts agreed on with county Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.

Oliver wrote that Roberts approached Heiskell and asked for the $184,000 annually that Roberts mistakenly thought Peppers earned. Heiskell said Peppers' pay reflected his 26 years' experience. So she told Roberts, "If he wanted that level of salary of Walker County, he would have to sue the county to get it," Oliver wrote.

After hearing that, Roberts agreed to negotiate with Heiskell, Oliver wrote.

Roberts told Heiskell he was making $94,000 annually as an assistant district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

So on Oct. 1, 2012, Heiskell agreed to pay him $100,000 annually, with a potential raise for merit and longevity.

However, the county got Roberts' federal W-2 forms showing his annual pay in 2011 was $81,071 and in 2010 it was $85,297, Oliver wrote, alleging that Roberts committed "fraud in contract negotiations."

Oliver noted that Peppers' annual salary was $163,000 -- not the $172,102 stated in Roberts' lawsuit.

Oliver's response also argues that Roberts, who leaves office Dec. 31, has failed to work full time, and the county is entitled to adjust Roberts' salary to reflect his actual hours.

Walker County judges have recused themselves from the case. Senior Georgia Superior Courts Judge Larry Salmon, of Rome, Ga., will preside. A jury trial is tentatively scheduled for May 1.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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