LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Gwinnett State Court judge on Wednesday called claims about her work ethic made by the county's former Commission Chairman Charles Bannister in a federal lawsuit meritless.
Judge Carla Brown, who is married to Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway, is not among the three county employees -- Conway and two deputies under his command -- being sued by the former head of Gwinnett's government.
But the 40-page suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, points to Bannister's probe of the judge's absences from the bench as fodder for Conway's aversion to the sheriff -- and part of Conway's motivation for arresting Bannister on DUI charges that were later dropped.
According to the suit, Bannister made inquiries into the workplace habits of Brown, who he suspected of abusing public funds by "rarely" showing up for her full-time judgeship; her absences forced magistrate judges to cover for her, the suit claims.
In response, Brown said court records detailing when judges sat in for her and the size of her case load over the years clearly disprove those claims.
"My judicial assistance use is in line with all other state court judges," said Brown. "The caseload numbers don't lie, and they're readily available."
Among other claims against Brown, Bannister's suit states that he requested records showing when the judge's access card was used to enter and exit Gwinnett's courthouse -- actions that not only infuriated the judge and Conway, but spurred the sheriff to change the access card system so that no records could be kept, the suit claims.
Brown said the access card system had been changed before she was appointed to the bench in 2003 by Gov. Sonny Perdue. Brown won an election for the seat in 2004 and wasn't opposed at the end of that four-year term in 2008, she said.
Constitutional rights protecting Bannister against illegal search and seizure during the DUI arrest, and granting him the right to voice opposition to Conway in past political arenas, were violated, entitling him to whatever damages a federal jury will deem fit, the suit claims.
Bannister's attorney, David Walbert, said he's hopeful the case will be tried some time next year. He said compensatory and punitive damages should be awarded to Bannister for millions of dollars.
The suit alleges Conway tried to "catch" Bannister and arrest him on "trumped-up" charges when he left Cafe Hot Wing, a Lilburn restaurant Bannister frequented for "conversation, food and an occasional beer" in June 2010.
The DUI arrest came months before Bannister suddenly resigned to avoid a perjury charge as a special grand jury was investigating controversial land deals conducted under his watch.
Throughout the ordeal, Conway denied that he and Bannister were political adversaries. He called the arrest and baseless charges more a product of poor judgment than animosity. This week the sheriff reiterated his apology to Bannister and his family.