MARCH 06, 2009
A Georgia judge already charged with seven misconduct violations by his Judicial Qualifications Commission has pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally accepting a lucrative political appointment to settle unpaid attorney’s fees.
The Clinch County Judge, Berrien Sutton, was one of several in Georgia’s Alapaha Judicial Circuit to have his office raided by the FBI a few years ago as part of a widespread corruption investigation. Sutton’s good friend and colleague, chief judge Brooks Blitch, has been charged with a series of felonies for illegally paying employees with court fees, giving high-paying jobs to friends and fixing cases.
Federal prosecutors had charged Sutton with nine crimes, eight of which were dropped in exchange for this week’s guilty plea. Elected to the state bench, the disgraced judge admitted that Chief Justice Blitch gave him a part-time juvenile court appointment as payment for legal services he had provided as an attorney to the chief judge and his family in criminal and civil cases.
Sutton earned an extra $42,000 a year and did little or no work, according to prosecutors. His wife also got a job as a “court administrator” and combined the couple made about half a million dollars from their bogus taxpayer-financed jobs.
Sutton’s admission could be the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing federal corruption investigation of the rural south Georgia circuit, which includes five counties near the Florida state line. The probe began in 2007 when dozens of FBI agents descended upon the Clinch County building that houses the judges’ chambers.
Blitch’s trial is scheduled for this spring. For years considered one of the area’s most powerful politicians, the former chief justice served on the Alapaha Circuit bench for nearly three decades and he wielded tremendous power in the tight knit community.
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