Judge To Oxendine In '91 Case: You're An Abomination

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ATLANTA — A Whistleblower 2 Investigation uncovered records that reveal an ugly chapter in the brief legal career of current Insurance Commissioner and gubernatorial candidate John Oxendine. Before he ran for state office, he represented a small company in a tax dispute. During the case, the judge described Oxendine's behavior as "an abomination" and said he'd like to end his career.

The whistleblower steered Channel 2's Richard Belcher to civil action 89-V-36917 in the Houston County Courthouse in Warner Robins. It's a dispute filed in 1989 about a modest amount of money. Court documents that a Channel 2 producer got at the courthouse show Oxendine represented a cleaning company that had a contract at Robins Air Force Base in Houston County. A search of his history proves he had only been practicing law for two years at the time.

Belcher showed the court documents to a Georgia State University law professor and national legal expert Clark Cunningham. He noted that when a dispute arose about Oxendine's client providing records to the plaintiff, things got ugly.

Pt. 1 Investigation Reveals Dark Side In Oxendine's Career Pt. 2 Investigation Reveals Dark Side In Oxendine's Career

"Over and over again, it appears that there was simply no response to the orders of the court," Cunningham said.

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According to the records, by July 1991, Superior Court Judge Lewis McConnell was furious about Oxendine's refusal to produce the documents the judge had ordered months before. The hearing transcript reveals the judge's attack on what he considered Oxendine's contemptible legal conduct.

"I've never seen a court transcript where a judge said things like this," Cunningham said.

The transcript of McConnell's comments read, "If I knew I could suspend you from practicing law in the state of Georgia for the rest of your life I would do so. You're an an abomination as far as I'm concerned."

Another section of the transcripts show McConnell said, "Mr. Oxendine, let me tell you what. If I knew I could put you in jail right now for contempt of court, I would do so...We don't need people like you practicing law in the state of Georgia...I've never seen anybody quite like you...You give all lawyers a bad name as far as I'm concerned."

Cunningham said, "That's language I have not heard in any other case."

Court records then show the plaintiff asked the judge for sanctions against Oxendine and his client. The documents included McConnell's response to the order on Dec. 20, 1991.

It read, "John Oxendine, willfully and intentionally tried to obstruct the discovery laws of this state and the court finds this conduct to be the most reprehensible of any seen in 13 years of the private practice and eight years on the bench."

Belcher asked Cunningham if Oxendine merely made rookie mistakes in the case. "No, there's no excuse at any point in a lawyer's career for doing what the judge concludes in the order has happened, which is willful and intentional obstruction of discovery laws."

Court documents showed it wasn't until three years after the incidents that the case was settled in 1994. In the settlement was a statement with an explicit prohibition against referring anyone to the state bar, requiring, "The complete discharge of any claims...for any damage alleged to have been caused by...'abusive litigation' or violation of the state bar of Georgia disciplinary rules and ethical considerations."

Cunningham said the provision is totally improper. "It's never up to the parties in private litigation to try to decide among themselves whether the conduct of their lawyers has violated the rules of professional conduct."

David Lefkowitz, a legal expert on legal malpractice, agreed. "I've never seen a circumstance where a lawyer who is representing a party has had language placed in a settlement agreement that releases him from abusive litigation or from a disciplinary action."

Court records showed the case was settled after Oxendine was removed from the case in favor of Houston County attorney Larry Walker, who was then majority leader in the Georgia House of Representatives. He declined to speak with Channel 2 about the case.

Cunningham said the agreement reads like an effort to protect Oxendine. "(It) certainly suggests that this settlement has in mind the possibilities mentioned by the judge that this conduct could result in Mr. Oxendine being suspended from the practice of law."

A call to the Georgia bar revealed Oxendine hasn't been a member of the state bar for 15 years. An employee said his status is listed as inactive, but in good standing. Belcher found no evidence that the bar received any complaints about Oxendine's conduct in Houston County.

Oxendine's campaign manager, Stephen Puetz, released a statement Thursday that said, "For over a year our opponents have been attacking us with unfounded accusations and worn out stories from the past. What a judge said to John 20 years ago has no bearing on what kind of governor he will be. John will spend the next six weeks talking about what he'll do as governor to bring jobs back to Georgia."

Lefkowitz said it doesn't matter that this case happened 16 years ago. "In my view, if you're going to run for public office then you essentially have an open book on your past. And if you're going to put your legal victories in the limelight, then perhaps your legal defeats need to be in the public domain as well."