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Former judge pleads to fraud charge

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POSTED: March 5, 2009 12:28 p.m.
SAVANNAH - A former Court judge pleaded guilty in federal court Wednesday to a charge that he illegally accepted a $42,500-a-year political appointment to settle unpaid attorneys fees owed to him by the Superior Court judge who gave him the job.

Homerville attorney Berrien Sutton, who resigned as a Clinch County judge last year, pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to commit honest services fraud before U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson in Macon.

In exchange, prosecutors dismissed eight additional counts of mail fraud against Sutton and agreed to drop similar criminal charges against his wife, Lisa Sutton. He will be sentenced within the next two months.

"Mr. Sutton has ... accepted responsibility for his conduct," said his attorney, Tom Withers. "It was important in his decision-making process that the government dismiss his wife from the case and dismiss the forfeiture claims against their property."

Sutton, 59, had been a key figure in a federal investigation of judicial misconduct in south Georgia's Alapaha Judicial Circuit along with former Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III, who once was Sutton's law partner.

A July 2008 indictment charged Sutton with letting Blitch appoint him as a part-time Juvenile Court judge as payment for legal services Sutton provided to Blitch and his family in criminal and civil cases. Sutton, who as also an elected State Court judge, served as a juvenile judge from 2001 to 2007 and "did little or no work," prosecutors said.

The indictment said Sutton "knew at the time he accepted the appointment that the position was unnecessary and it was provided to him as a financial favor to help him get out of debt."

Blitch also gave Sutton's wife to a job as court administrator. Prosecutors said the couple earned more than $500,000 in their appointed positions.

Blitch, one of the most powerful polticians in rural Clinch County, was also indicted on corruption charges in 2008. He has pleaded innocent and has yet to stand trial. Blitch and Sutton both resigned from the bench to avoid non-criminal misconduct charges by a Georgia agency.

U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood declined to discuss terms of the plea deal with Sutton, which were not included in records filed with the court. Withers would not comment on the terms either, other than to say prosecutors had agreed to spare Sutton's wife.


 

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