Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA — To avoid potential conflicts of interest, lawyers may not represent more than one of the 35 defendants in the case involving a cheating scandal in the Atlanta public schools, the judge in the case said Thursday.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said during a hearing for lawyers who already have been representing more than one client in the case that he was acting very cautiously because he doesn’t want to encounter any potential conflicts — even if none are immediately evident.
“What I’m worried about is, down the road if conditions change, that will throw this whole case into turmoil,” Baxter said.
A Fulton County grand jury in March indicted 35 educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall, and accused them of involvement in a broad conspiracy to cheat, conceal cheating or retaliate against whistleblowers. Prosecutors say the educators were driven at least in part by bonuses for improved student performance.
Bob Rubin, who represents two former Atlanta Public Schools principals, said he was confident there was no conflict of interest between his clients, who he said worked at different schools and had never spoken or met each other prior to their indictment. Rubin has been working with his clients for more than a year, and forcing one of them to start over with a new lawyer now could hurt their defense, he argued.
Three other lawyers who represent multiple clients made similar arguments.
But Baxter denied all requests to reconsider his decision, saying all of the educators face a conspiracy charge implicating them in a coordinated scheme.
The lawyers who appeared Thursday for the conflict of interest hearing represented a dozen clients in the case.
The eight defendants who share a lawyer with another defendant had their arraignments rescheduled for May 16 to give some of them a chance to find a new lawyer. Four other defendants who originally had the same lawyer appeared in court Thursday, each with a separate lawyer, and the judge allowed them to waive formal arraignment. The remaining educators, including Hall, are set to be arraigned Friday.
Prosecutor Fani Willis also raised the possibility that some of the lawyers representing defendants in the case may have previously represented other former Atlanta Public Schools educators in their appearances before the Atlanta Public Schools tribunal or the Professional Standards Commission. That could lead to additional conflicts of interest if any of those educators, who were not indicted, are called to testify.
Baxter told Willis the prosecution would need to provide a list of all the witnesses who will testify in the case by May 16 at the latest so those concerns can be addressed. Willis also raised the possibility that more educators could be indicted.
Noting the nearly two-year investigation the district attorney’s office has already conducted, Baxter responded that prosecutors should file any additional indictments quickly to avoid throwing “a monkey wrench” into the case.