A state review board within the State Bar of Georgia has recommended that a former district attorney be suspended from practicing law for a period of six months.
The State Bar of Georgia filed a formal complaint against former Augusta Judicial Circuit District Attorney Natalie Paine over her handling of a three-defendant murder case several years ago. Paine, a Republican, was ousted from political office in 2020 by Democrat Jared Williams, but continues to work as a prosecutor in the newly-created Columbia County Judicial Circuit.
The allegations against her contend that she violated procedural and criminal statutes in her handling of the case, which involved recorded conversations of defendants with their legal counsel. In early 2022, a Special Master released a report finding no wrongdoing on the part of Paine, but a review on appeal by eight individuals instead said she should be punished. That body recommended the suspension of Paine’s law license for six months.
Paine “has made inconsistent and contradictory statements regarding her knowledge of unconstitutional tactics used against persons she prosecuted.”
The complaint stems from Paine’s handling of State of Georgia v. William Krepps, Vaughn Austin Verdi, and Emily Stephens in Richmond County Superior Court.
According to the paperwork filed in the Supreme Court of Georgia, Paine notified the counsel of the defendant to let her know the defendant would be moved from the jail to the Sheriff’s Office for an interrogation. Counsel told Paine that transport was not necessary as her client was not interested in speaking with police. Paine later messaged to let her know that the defendant had been transported for an interrogation anyway. The attorney promptly went to the Sheriff’s Office to intervene where she was met by Paine and an investigator. She asked to speak with her client and verified that the conversation would not be recorded. The conversation between the lawyer and the defendant, however, was recorded and later sent to Paine.
The same day, another attorney for a codefendant met with his client at the office, at which time their conversation was also recorded.
In the criminal case against the defendants, the Trial Court Judge suppressed the recordings on the basis that they were the product of “outrageous abuses of statutory and constitutional law.” The judge found that the recordings:
- violated the Sixth Amendment;
- violated the attorney-client privilege; and
- were made in violation of O.C.G.A. § 16-11-62, a felony criminal statute that specifically outlaws the recording of conversations between a defendant and his attorney in a facility in which persons who are charged with a crime are incarcerated.
The State Bar of Georgia asserts that Paine violated:
- Rule 3.4(g) — lawyer shall not use methods of obtaining evidence that violates the rights of the opposing party or counsel;
- Rule 4.2 — lawyer shall not communicate with represented person without consent of other lawyer;
- Rule 8.1 — lawyer shall not make a false statement in connection with a disciplinary matter; and
- Rule 8.4(a)(l) — lawyer shall not attempt to violate a Rule, assist another in violating a Rule, induce another to violate a Rule, or violate a Rule through the acts of another.
Paine is represented by Atlanta attorney Brian Steel, who is also representing Young Thug in a Fulton County case and Nathan Weekes, the GDC inmate charged for his role in a botched murder-for-hire of a corrections officer in Tattnall County.
In response to the allegations, Paine’s counsel asserted that Paine was not present for the alleged misconduct and was unaware of any statements that defendants should not be transported. He also said the investigator was “unaware” that the technology still collected video and sound recordings of the interrogation rooms when the volume was turned down for a person observing in real time. Steel said Paine had no knowledge of the recordings , their existence, or their distribution.
Steel wrote in his brief that Paine had no knowledge that attorney-client conversations were recorded and shared and that Paine allocated $40,000.00 from the budget of the District Attorney’s Office of Richmond County to acquire and implement a new system at the Sheriff’s office.
He said she is not culpable as the Sheriff’s Office provided the disks to her and she copied them for others without ever reviewing them.
Timeline of Prosecution of Paine
February 21, 2020 — State Disciplinary Board found probable cause that Natalie Paine violated 4 Rules of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct.
January 14, 2021 — Attorney William Van Hearnburg Jr., counsel for the State Bar of Georgia, requests that a Special Master be appointed by the Georgia Supreme Court to handle the Paine disciplinary matter. State Bar also files 12-page formal complaint against Paine. Read the complaint here.
January 15, 2021 — SCOGA appoints Patrick Head as the Special Master. Head, a Republican, served as the District Attorney in Cobb County from until 2012 when he retired.
January 28, 2021 — Paine is notified about appointment of Special Master, the formal complaint by the State Bar of Georgia, and the intention to prosecute under Georgia Bar rules.
January 29, 2021 — Paine retains Atlanta attorney Brian Steel to represent her.
March 26, 2021 — Head enters a scheduling order with a number of deadlines for both parties. He schedules an evidentiary hearing at the State Bar of Georgia at the conclusion of all other proceedings in 10 months — on February 1, 2022.
January 19, 2022 — Steel files a Motion to Exclude Any and All Evidence of Supposed Communication with a Represented Party by a Non-Lawyer Without the Knowledge of Former District Attorney Natalie Paine. Steel argues that the state bar need not consider whether law enforcement officers had contact with a represented party unless the law enforcement officer was directed by Paine to do so.
February 14, 2022 — State Bar of Georgia opposes motion to exclude evidence, saying it is all relevant and should be heard at trial.
March 6, 2022 — Special Master Patrick Head issues his Report & Recommendations. His report says that the audio and video recording of attorney-client conversations that occurred in this matter was “reprehensible, outrageous, and all other adjectives that can define such egregious conduct.”
But he finds that Paine “did not violate any of the Georgia Rules of Professional Conduct as alleged in the Formal Complaint” and recommended that the Formal Complaint against Natalie Spires Paine be dismissed. Read the report from the Special Master here.
April 5, 2022 — State Bar of Georgia files Request for Review and Exceptions to the Report and Recommendation by the State Bar of Georgia Review Board. Under State Bar rules, the Review Board “may reverse findings of fact of the Special Master if they are clearly erroneous or manifestly in error.”
Attorney Van Hearnburg alleges that Paine “lied twice during the disciplinary process. The brief states specifically that Paine knew the rooms were recorded because, by her own accounts, she was at the CID unit of the Sheriff’s Office on a near-daily basis and had watched “thousands of hours” of interrogations.
Additionally, on multiple occasions, Paine stated she personally copied the videos for distribution to other parties in the case, the brief says. Van Hearnburg contends that the Attorney-Client meetings would not have occurred, would not have been recorded, would not have been copied, and would not have been distributed but for the participation of Paine.
He asked that Paine be publicly reprimanded for her actions.
May 5, 2022 — Paine’s counsel files brief in opposition of appeal on decision by special master. He contends Paine was not the one to make copies of the videos. He argued that the special master’s ruling “must stand.”
August 5, 2022 — State Disciplinary Review Board files report with recommendations contrary to that of Special Master Patrick Head by way of an outright rejection.
The Report Findings
Rule 3.4(g) — lawyer shall not use methods of obtaining evidence that violates the rights of the opposing party or counsel
- The Review Board wrote that it ‘refuses to adopt’ the Special Master’s finding as it was “clearly erroneous.”
- They also wrote that ‘If the District Attorney chose to rely on the Sheriff’s Office to redact [unconstitutional communication], and other similar conversations, she had a duty to confirm they had followed through, or as here, be held accountable for their failures.”
Rule 4.2 — lawyer shall not communicate with represented person without consent of other lawyer
- The Review Board agreed that the State Bar did not prove a violation.
Rule 8.1 — lawyer shall not make a false statement in connection with a disciplinary matter
- The Review Board, again, found that the Special Master’s finding was clearly erroneous as Paine made multiple conflicting statements.
Rule 8.4(a)(l) — lawyer shall not attempt to violate a Rule, assist another in violating a Rule, induce another to violate a Rule, or violate a Rule through the acts of another.
- The Review Board agreed that the State Bar did not prove a violation.
The Board subsequently recommended a suspension of Paine’s law license for a period of six months. The vote was unanimous with one one abstention.
The Board does not have final say, however, and the matter will now go before the Georgia Supreme Court for consideration.
Paine Political Ties
Paine garnered the endorsement of Governor Brian Kemp weeks before the election two years ago. Following Paine’s defeat in November 2020, the Georgia legislature created a new judicial circuit for Columbia County. The measure passed overwhelmingly despite claims of fiscal irresponsibility, opposition from the community, and the late-hour introduction of the bill for the legislative session.
In April 2021, Governor Brian Kemp appointed Bobby Christine, a Republican and former US Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, to serve as the District Attorney for the new circuit. Paine was promptly hired to work for Christine and serves as his Chief ADA. Kemp, in October 2021, appointed Paine to serve on the Judicial Nominating Commission.
Formal Complaint by State Bar of Georgia
Special Master Report & Recommendations
Request for Review (Appeal of Special Master Report) + Response from Paine
Report & Recommendation from State Review Board