CHALMETTE, La. -- The Louisiana Legislative Auditor slams former St. Bernard Parish Clerk of Court Lena Torres in a scathing report released to the public Monday.
Former St. Bernard Clerk of Court Lena Torres was the last of a family political dynasty, holding office into her 90s. But now she is under fire in a Legislative audit that accuses of her of giving potentially illegal breaks to her son.
The 12-page audit released Monday states that Torres may have broken the law by allowing her son Sidney Torres III to pay some fees up to two years late, and in some cases not collecting at all. Out of $174,000 owed, the audit states that Torres failed to collect about $60,000.
“Clerk of Court records show that from June 2009 to May 2011 advance court costs totaling $174,300 were not collected at the time Mr. Torres filed 581 civil suit relating to insurance claims and damages caused by Hurricane Katrina,” the audit states.
“By not requiring her son to pay the advance court costs at the time of the filing, Ms. Torres may have violated state law.”
The accusation was first raised by the man who replaced Torres by defeating her in a fall 2011 election, unseating a parish matriarch who had worked in the office for 71 years. After starting as a 19-year-old in 1940, she worked under her husband Sidney Torres Jr. when he became clerk in 1956, then succeeded him upon his death in 1988.
Current Clerk of Court Randy Nunez said he stumbled across the alleged uncollected fees during the election and eventually publicized the accusation in campaign ads.
Nunez said the audit adds credibility to what some people dismissed as politically motivated attack claims.
"There's always people who doubt whether you are stretching the truth,” Nunez said. “After reading this (audit) you would understand that we really were telling the truth. What we said was really happening."
The audit supports Nunez's basic claim: That Torres allowed her son, Sidney Torres III, to file hundreds of post-Katrina lawsuits without immediately paying the three-hundred dollar fees and court costs for each suit.
"No, the law is very, very clear,” Nunez said. “It's 'shall,' it's not 'may.' You have to collect a certain amount of money."
Nunez said his office is researching what steps can be taken to recover any money that the auditors say is owed.
"We potentially might have pending litigation here,” Nunez said. “So I don't want to talk much about that issue. Because if there is monies owed to the clerk's office, I have a duty to the public, as a public servant, to recover those monies."
In a lengthy response to the audit, an attorney for Ms. Torres wrote that the report is "simply outrageous and without basis in fact."
Later Tuesday, spokesperson for Torres issued this prepared statement: “There were no violations of the law or the public trust. For more than forty years, while under the authority and scrutiny of the Legislative Auditor, without a hint of scandal or impropriety, Mrs. Lena Torres has led the St. Bernard Parish Clerk of Court's Office. All lawyers followed the policy and procedures of the office and paid appropriately and timely all filing fees as assessed. No exceptions were asked or offered for any attorney. Standard operating procedures were followed and public records were not destroyed.”
The statement continued with a jab at Nunez, the successor who beat her in the fall 2011 election: “The nature and tone of the report is disturbing. Most disgraceful, the report and its sources can be traced directly to Mrs. Torres final political campaign. Her opponent, the current Clerk of Court, and an ally of the current clerk have made every effort to smear the reputations of her family and her record of public service. Lena Torres' unblemished record of performance and public service stands.”
Chief among the complaints was by Torres’ attorney was that she granted similar grace periods to other attorneys. But according to the audit, the statistics show otherwise, nearly all other attorneys were required to pay the full fees and court costs within seven days.
Nunez, an attorney with a practice in the parish, said he has first-hand knowledge of Torres’ payment policies.
"I practiced law down here for 20 years, we paid. I think the report bears out that other lawyers were paying."
Sidney Torres III also filed a lengthy legal response to the audit, stating that the audit is “erroneous” His attorney argued that many of the lawsuits started as class action suits, but were later severed into individual claims.