Judging Arrington

Will former council president’s past turn into Barnes’ Achilles’ heel?

Marvin Arrington is now a judge. On its face, that just doesn’t add up.

Here’s a guy with a shady ethical past and very little courtroom experience being appointed by Gov. Roy Barnes as a Fulton Superior Court judge. Alarm bells should be going off.

For the scenario to make sense, local pundits have tried tying Arrington’s appointment to a pair of $5,000 contributions made by the then-soon-to-be-appointed judge and his son to Barnes. But that money did little more than buy the governor a heap of embarrassment and created the appearance that Barnes’ appointment had a price.

In Arrington’s case, the price had nothing to do with money. It’s a bit of a stretch, after all, to guess that a $10,000 contribution makes a difference in a campaign that’s already raised $10 million. No, Arrington’s journey from political has-been and legal afterthought to judge is likely all about politics. It’s a payback for Arrington’s crucial endorsement of Mayor Shirley Franklin in her November campaign against Robb Pitts and Gloria Bromell-Tinubu.

What does Barnes get in return in this equation? The answer depends on how cynical you are. Either he simply wanted Franklin to win the election or he wanted Franklin to win to ensure that she will mobilize her considerable political machine to get out the vote for the governor in November. A Robb Pitts victory last November would have made it more difficult to operate in an area from which Barnes is counting on 75-80 percent of the vote.

No matter the motives, one thing’s for sure; appointing Arrington is a political gamble for Barnes, a big one. It may not hurt him too badly in 2002. Certainly it’s not as big a liability as the governor’s successful gambit to replace the state flag. But Arrington could damage Barnes in elections to come.

That’s because Arrington has baggage. There’s the matter of a videotape that Barnes’ Republican opponent will surely use against him during the upcoming election. In it, Arrington accepts money from Harold Echols, a former businessman at Hartsfield Airport.

“Is that the image you want portrayed for a Superior Court judge? Absolutely not,” says Chuck Clay, the former head of Georgia’s Republican Party.

During the 1994 trial that resulted in the convictions of former council members Ira Jackson and D.L. “Buddy” Fowlkes on bribery charges, Echols told prosecutors that he gave Arrington $11,000 to re-appoint Fowlkes as chairman of the council’s Transportation Committee, in addition to regular $500 weekly payments.

The government, however, never had enough evidence to put Arrington on trial.

That won’t matter to Barnes’ future gubernatorial adversary.

While Arrington says the money was a campaign contribution, and he reported it as such, his body language in the video calls that claim into question. It is surely the most unorthodox donation ever. When Echols stuffs the money in Arrington’s left coat pocket, Arrington raises a newspaper to cover the transaction — not exactly the normal reaction to someone sticking money in your pocket. Arrington would not comment on the videotape or his appointment.

Barnes obviously doesn’t think the tape or Arrington’s appointment will hurt him, which is strange because even people within the Franklin camp questioned pursuing Arrington’s endorsement during the mayor’s campaign, says David Franklin, the mayor’s ex-husband and an adviser during the election. Some wondered whether the reward would outweigh the risk. In the end, the answer was yes.

“We sought his endorsement,” David Franklin says. “It told a lot of average people in southwest that Shirley was cool.”

The weekend before the election — too little time for Pitts to air the video — the campaign sent out 10,000 letters to residents in southwest Atlanta with Arrington’s endorsement. Franklin avoided what would have been a costly run-off by just 200 votes. Arrington may very well have accounted for those 200 votes.

While the endorsement didn’t come down until just a few days before the election, talk of Arrington being in the bag and what he could expect as payment for his decision to back Franklin was discussed by campaign insiders as early as late September. Back then, Arrington wouldn’t comment on the election.

Now, it will be Georgia Republicans doing the commenting just as supporters of former Mayor Bill Campbell used the videotape during his 1997 campaign. But Barnes’ opponents will have to do it skillfully.

If Atlantans perceive a Republican picking on a former black elected official who is still well liked, it could mobilize a backlash.

“That’s what turned [1998] from a close race into a rout,” says one top Barnes supporter, referring to former lieutenant governor candidates Mitch Skandalakis’ attacks on Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, which resulted in an unprecedented black turnout in 1998.

But the video may play well outside of metro Atlanta, especially in rural Georgia, and there is a possibility, though unlikely, that Republicans could figure out a way to paint the appointment as a crass attempt by Barnes to buy black votes.

Opinions diverge about whether Arrington’s appointment could be a factor in this year’s race.

“It only becomes an issue if Marvin goes off and is a crook,” Clay says. “It would blow up in the governor’s face. If he does well, they can play it until the cows come home. It won’t make a difference.”

Sonny Perdue, the front-runner to become Barnes’ opponent come November, isn’t so sure.

“I think the overall issue of ethics and the culture of winking and nodding and looking the other way is something the people of Georgia want brought up in a campaign,” Perdue says. “To have made the appointment after the contributions and an endorsement in an election in which you had an interest is troubling to me, and it’s troubling to the people of Georgia.”

At the very least, Barnes will probably be forced to justify the appointment. It’s clear that he wanted Franklin to win the race. Former spokesman Gary Horlacher worked for Franklin during the early part of her campaign, and Barnes Deputy Chief of Staff Jerry Gray and top supporter Verna Jennings Cleveland were both extremely active for Franklin. The mayor served on Barnes transition team in 1998, and was appointed by the governor to the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Political considerations aside, there are questions about whether Arrington will be able to do the job. He didn’t have much of a legal career and was not a courtroom lawyer. He was writing a book when he got the appointment and not actively practicing.

In fact, Arrington’s practice declined steeply after he left office, according to a number of people familiar with it.

“It was a practice based on who you know, a government affairs type practice,” Clay says. When Arrington lost elected office and could no longer offer access to government, his clients left him. So the issue of Arrington’s qualifications also may be raised in an election.

That’s not to say that Arrington can’t do the job.

“First and foremost, Marvin is a smart guy, and he’s fully capable of being a Fulton Superior Court judge,” Clay says. He adds that that would put Arrington ahead of a pack of other Barnes’ judicial appointees.

No one disputes Arrington’s intelligence. It’s his integrity that’s been called into question. And that question may rise again if Barnes is successful, as seems likely, in this year’s race and eventually runs for higher office. Barnes fits the mold — a socially progressive Southerner — of recent presidential and vice presidential candidates.

The Arrington appointment could very well be a Willie Horton-sized skeleton in his closet.