Federal prison wore him down and he doesnt want to besmirch the good name of his son, former longtime Columbia City Councilman E. W. Cromartie II told the five justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday.
Im asking you for your mercy, said Cromartie, 67, who begged the justices not to strip him of his law license an act that he said would tarnish him even more than the 10-month prison sentence he served for federal tax evasion.
Its tough when you go to jail. Things happen. You sleep on a steel bunk. I slept on my left side all that time. I did not realize that after that I would have tremendous problems. Ive had back surgery on my L-3, 4 and 5 (the lower back section of his spine). And now they want to have hip and knee replacement on me, Cromartie said.
I have a medical condition known as drop foot, severe nerve damage in my left leg, and as a result have almost no control whatsoever over my left leg, said Cromartie, who came to court using a walker.
But its because of his lawyer son, E.W. Cromartie III, that he says he doesnt want to have his law license formally taken away.
Ive been fortunate enough to get my son to return to Columbia from Washington, D.C. However, I know he did not come back to South Carolina in order to have his ability to earn a living be impaired by a disbarred father, having the same name as I, said Cromartie, who practiced law for 38 years.
Cromartie whom the justices put under oath promised that if he could keep his law license, even suspended, he would never again practice law.
In 2010, he resigned from City Council after being indicted for tax evasion and structuring bank deposits so they wouldnt be noticed by the IRS. The same year, the court suspended Cromarties law license. Thursdays hearing was the final stage of legal disciplinary proceedings against him to see if his suspension should continue or if he should be disbarred.
In 2011, Cromartie spent 10 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to the crimes for which he was indicted.
At one point Thursday, Cromartie accepted full responsibility for his actions.
Cromartie also told the court the matters he was sent to prison for happened because he loved his legal and political work.
I probably spent so much time doing that that I wasnt doing what I was supposed to be doing.
But Office of Disciplinary Counsel prosecutor Barbara Seymour told the justices Cromartie knew what he was doing and should be disbarred.
It doesnt make any sense that he did it because he was too busy, Seymour said, her voice tinged with sarcasm. He did it over and over and over again.
Cromarties attorney, Steedley Bogan, told the justices that Cromarties long career as a dedicated public servant is one key reason why the court should show Cromartie mercy.
Seymour countered, A political career, no matter how distinguished, shouldnt excuse that kind of behavior.
When Associate Justice Donald Beatty asked Seymour the purpose of disbarment, she answered, Its a deterrent for lawyers in the future.
Beatty asked, Was the public harmed in any way as a result of his actions?
The public is always harmed when someone commits a crime, Seymour answered. And its particularly harmed when someone whos been entrusted with a law license commits a crime. And even more so, when its someone who has been entrusted with representing his community. And its not just one crime its repeated conduct.
Chief Justice Jean Toal said one problem with Cromarties request for mercy is that he has an extensive history of (legal) discipline. It seems like we never could get Mr. Cromarties attention.
Toal was referring to a 2000 public reprimand the court gave to Cromartie for mishandling money in his law firms accounts in ways that caused clients financial problems. In 2005, the court gave Cromartie a private admonition for similar matters.
Bogan told the justices, We know that the facts are bad. But one thing you can say in this case, Mr. Cromartie is not stealing. Thats usually cause for disbarment, Bogan said.
Associate Justice John Kittredge asked Bogan about Cromarties 2010 plea agreement with federal prosecutors in which Cromartie agreed to surrender his license to practice law.
Bogan replied that Cromarties suspension and his promise not to practice law again was, in fact, a surrender of his law license. You can do things short of disbarment that will still protect the public.
And Cromartie already has been punished by serving time in prison, Bogan said.
A decision in Cromarties case is not expected for days or even weeks.
Seymour, asked by Toal if Cromarties promise to never practice law again would suffice instead of taking his law license, didnt compromise.
In this particular case, Seymour said, its very important for the court to say to the Bar that this kind of conduct will result in disbarment.
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.