Critiques of the Judiciary
DA makes case for ousting judges; He accuses them of gross misconductJOHN SIMERMANOctober 28, 2011
Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro may have recused himself in the probe of a slush fund controlled by criminal court judges, but he has laid out a scorching legal road map for state Attorney General Buddy Caldwell's office, arguing that the judges are guilty of malfeasance and gross misconduct, and should be subject to removal from office.
In a five-page letter dated Aug. 4, Cannizzaro accuses the criminal district judges of:
- Illegally ordering convicts to pay into the Judicial Expense Fund under the threat of revoking their probation and packing them off to jail.
- Knowingly padding their salaries illegally through supplemental health and life insurance policies paid for through the fund.
- Failing to ever conduct an audit of the fund, despite a state mandate for annual audits.
In the latest and loudest salvo in his public grudge match with the 12 judges at Tulane and Broad, Cannizzaro urges the attorney general's office to "institute any prosecution warranted under the circumstances."
He also acknowledged that he "may have participated at some time in the conduct" when he sat on the criminal court bench from 1986 until 2002. The statute of limitations for the crimes he has alleged appears to run four years from when the conduct ends, which means Cannizzaro would be in the clear.
The attorney general's office is waiting on a full-scale review of the fund by the state legislative auditor before it begins to investigate whether the judges have violated civil or criminal laws, said Caldwell's son, David Caldwell, who heads the attorney general's public corruption and special prosecutions unit.
"We've read the letter and we're aware of the allegations, but the proof is always in the pudding. You've got to get to the facts," David Caldwell said. "We don't know who did what and when they did it. We've got to wait and see."
Rob Kazik, the court's judicial administrator, said he had not yet reviewed the letter, which was filed Thursday in an unrelated criminal case . The attorney general's office is prosecuting that case , and it has asked the judges to recuse themselves in all matters that the attorney general is prosecuting while the probe of the fund is pending. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Nov. 17 before Judge Darryl Derbigny.
An earlier order from Judge Arthur Hunter, asking the Supreme Court to appoint an ad hoc judge to hear the recusal issue, was revoked.
"The only information we have is what was contained in that motion of recusal that was filed previously," Kazik said. "We've never been formally notified by any representative of the attorney general's office."
This summer, the Metropolitan Crime Commission asked the legislative auditor to review expense funds in both criminal and civil courts in Orleans Parish. Commission President Rafael Goyeneche has been critical of an estimated
$2 millionin supplemental health and life insurance policies that the criminal district judges appear to have bought since early 2006 through the fund.
From Jan. 1 to early July of this year, for instance, the judges spent at least $192,000 on various health and life insurance plans, according to a review of the court's check register for the fund.
Included during that six months was $30,000 in payments to a company called Exec-U-Care. The company's website said the plan reimburses deductibles, co-pays, prescription costs and other out-of-pocket expenses for company leaders.
State law bars judges from receiving "directly or indirectly, any additional salary, compensation, emolument, or benefit from the state or any of its political subdivisions" beyond their statutory salaries. Exceptions include payment of premiums for insurance programs, but only at the same rate paid by other state employees.
The Times-Picayune has asked the court for records reflecting benefits available to the judges that are paid for out of the fund, as well as a list of judges who avail themselves of the supplemental insurance.
In response to one request, an attorney hired by the court, Normand Pizza, cited confidentiality laws regarding health records. A second request last month, asking for, among other things, invoices of payments to insurance companies, has gone unmet.
In an email late Thursday, Pizza again delayed a response, in part because "the legislative auditor is currently examining many of the same records you are seeking."
The judges, who make just north of $130,000 in salary each year, can order convicts to pay as much as $2,000 into the fund for felonies and $250 for misdemeanors. State law says the money "may be used for any purpose connected with, incidental to, or related to the proper administration or function of the court or the office of the judges thereof."
Cannizzaro argued that the judges have been levying the payments and spending them, illegally.
The judges "have, as a matter of custom, been requiring convicted defendants to pay 'special assessments' to the judicial expense fund as a part of the sentence imposed by the court upon conviction. The consequence of non-payment ... is revocation of probation, ie. jail time."
"This occurs despite the fact that a payment to the judicial expense fund is not a lawful condition of probation."
Citing a previous federal court decision, the district attorney also wrote that "it appears that the statute enabling the judicial expense fund is itself unconstitutional" because it authorizes judges to "order the payment of moneys that they themselves will spend."
Through a spokesman, Cannizzaro declined to comment on his letter.
The district attorney also cites a state statute on malfeasance for what he called the judges' refusal to ever file an annual audit of the fund with the legislative auditor.
Goyeneche, however, said an audit of the fund appears to be contained in a wider 2010 audit of the court's books. Goyeneche agreed that state law and court rulings "seem to prohibit some of the practices that are being employed by the court" with respect to the supplemental insurance.
He said the court has also denied several of his requests for information about spending from the fund.
"I have more questions than I have answers," he said.Copyright 2011, The Times-Picayune
From: John Simerman, "DA makes case for ousting judges; He accuses them of gross misconduct," The Times-Picayune , New Orleans, October 28, 2011, National,
p. A-1. John Simerman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted in accordance with the "fair use" provision of Title 17 U.S.C. § 107for a non-profit educational purpose.
Those who cannot pay to keep out of jail may be offered other opportunities to contribute, as prison labor in Louisiana has long been tapped for both public and private projects. For example, in 2011, prison labor was used to renovate the Algiers courthouse.
- Jane Tiller, "Prisoners help renovate courthouse; It's slated to be ready in January," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, December 22, 2011,
Algiers Picayune, p. F-1.
- James Gill, "Deluxe insurance was judges' illicit perk," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 23, 2011,
Metro, p. B-7.
- "Living large on taxpayers" [Editorial] The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, October 23, 2011,
Metro, p. B-6.
- John Simerman, "Insurance spending for judges defended; Transparancy issues addressed," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, November 2, 2011,
National, p. A-7.
- Ed Anderson, "Raises recommended for judges; Legislators to decide on panel's proposal," The Times-Picayune, New Orleans, December 15, 2011,
National, p. A-3. ["Raising salaries can lead to a higher quality in the judiciary."]
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