The U.S. District Court ruling Wednesday clears former Superior Court Judge Brooks E. Blitch III of criminal wrongdoing after he pleaded guilty in September 2009 to a single count of honest service fraud conspiracy. The plea deal allowed Blitch to avoid jail, but he was sentenced to three years on probation and fined $100,000.
In his ruling voiding Blitch’s sentence, Judge Hugh Lawson ordered the federal government to refund any payments Blitch made toward his fine. Blitch’s attorney, John Gee Edwards, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.
Blitch, 77, served for nearly 30 years as a Superior Court judge in south Georgia, making him one of the most powerful politicians in rural Clinch County near the Florida state line. He resigned in 2008 to settle civil misconduct charges by a state agency.
Federal prosecutors last fall filed court papers saying they agreed with Blitch’s attorney that his criminal conviction should be voided because of a 2010 Supreme Court decision. In an appeal by Enron CEO Jeff Skilling, the high court ruled that honest service fraud _ the charged to which Blitch had pleaded guilty _ applies only to defendants who took bribes or kickbacks.
At his plea hearing, Blitch admitted he had negotiated deals for criminal defendants outside the courtroom, but there was no evidence he took money for judicial favors.
As part of the 2009 plea deal, prosecutors dropped 13 other charges against Blitch, who had also been accused of ordering $73,000 in secret, untaxed payments to county employees and appointing his former law partner, Berrien Sutton, to a juvenile judgeship in exchange for his legal services.
The federal judge’s ruling Wednesday also voided the conviction and sentence for Sutton, who struck a plea deal in the same corruption case.