Former Columbia City Council member E.W. Cromartie II, a convicted felon and admitted income tax evader, is asking the S.C. Supreme Court not to take his law license away.
Cromarties license to practice law was suspended in 2010, after federal prosecutors filed charges.
But a state Supreme Court disciplinary panel has ruled that his crimes make Cromartie unfit to be a lawyer and has recommended he be disbarred.
Cromartie is now appealing the panels recommendation. On Oct. 4, his lawyer, J. Steedley Bogan, will go before the Supreme Court in a public hearing to plead for mercy and ask that the five justices keep him only on suspension.
That Supreme Court hearing will be Cromarties last chance to avoid being disbarred the ultimate punishment for a lawyer.
In 2010, Cromartie pleaded guilty to federal charges of income tax evasion and trying to hide his true income from the IRS. Later that year, he was sentenced to a year and a day in federal prison and $58,000 in back taxes to the IRS.
Also that year, the S.C. Supreme Court suspended Cromarties law license. The courts Office of Disciplinary Counsel began a lengthy investigation as to what would be the best way to treat his legal status, taking his whole legal and political career into consideration.
In January this year just over two months after Cromartie was released from federal prison that process neared an end.
During a Jan. 31 hearing by a three-member legal panel, Cromartie testified, I would not like the stigma of being disbarred. "He testified he didnt intend to practice law again and a major reason he doesnt want his law license revoked is because of his son, who is a Columbia lawyer.
I have a son who has the exact name as I, Ernest William Cromartie, III. And I would hope and pray that my not being disbarred, it would not be a stigma against him, his father being a disbarred lawyer, Cromartie said.
I dont want the sins of the father to become the sins of the son, Cromartie said. I ask this tribunal to suspend me and to make it forever.
Cromarties longtime political friends, former Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and former city council member Hamilton Osborne, testified on his behalf.
You could always count on E.W. to vote for what he thought would be in the best interest of all the citizens, not just in his district, Coble said.
However, on March 23, the panel recommended Cromarties disbarment. In addition to his felony conviction, members noted Cromartie had an extensive disciplinary history, including being publicly reprimanded in 2000 for improperly removing funds from his client trust account.
A lawyer who engages in a pattern of illegal conduct related to his law practice and deliberately fails to comply with his ethical and professional obligations regarding client funds demonstrates unfitness..., the panel ruled.
The panel also noted Cromartie made false statements to federal law enforcement officers during their tax investigation and assisted a client in illegal conduct as well.
(Cromartie) has demonstrated a blatant disregard for the rules..., the panel wrote.
If the state Supreme Court doesnt disbar Cromartie, he likely would continue under suspension until his federal probation period expires, possibly as early as March. Then he could be reinstated as a full-fledged lawyer or be continued on suspension, according to court documents.
However, if the Supreme Court disbars Cromartie, he apparently still could become a full-fledged lawyer again at some point. But first he would have to take a course in legal ethics and take the bar exam a series of grueling legal tests that beginning lawyers must pass to get a law license.
At the January hearing, Cromartie said he didnt want to have to study for the bar.
Im 66 years of age, and I know I would have to take the bar again and do all of that again, he said.
For 32 years, Cromartie was one of the citys most influential politicians. Elected in 1978 as the citys first African-American city council member, he became known as someone who could get things done. His vote on the seven member council was often the deciding vote in close decisions a dynamic that heightened his influence.
At Cromarties January hearing, former Mayor Coble, who served with Cromartie 20 years on council, told the panel that Cromartie had helped upgrade crime-ridden neighborhoods and brought many fine projects including the Drew Wellness Center to the city and had a fine work ethic.
He was always on the job, Coble said.
Osborne, who was on council 16 years with Cromartie, described him as a very intelligent individual and an unusually perceptive individual. ... one of the hardest working people I think Ive ever known.
Cromarties lawyer, Bogan, told the panel that no other S.C. lawyer had been disbarred for being found guilty of crimes similar to Cromarties.
Cromartie has lost his position on city council, gone to prison and is paying back money to the IRS, Bogan said.
I would ask that you recommend mercy for Mr. Cromartie, Bogan said
Cromartie told the panel he takes full responsibility for his mistakes.
Its totally my fault. And Im deeply, deeply sorry. Because its unbelievable how you can take 30 or 40 years to build a career and you can do something and you can lose it in a matter of seconds.
Bogan declined comment Thursday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Moore, who prosecuted Cromartie, also declined comment on what should happen to Cromarties law license.
That is the Supreme Courts decision, Moore said.
Moore, known as an aggressive prosecutor, wasnt silent on Oct. 15, 2010, when Cromartie told a federal judge at his sentencing that he had committed errors in my judgment.
Moore immediately told U.S. Judge David Norton, These arent just errors in judgment these are crimes.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.