Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Couples Swept Away resort in Jamaica. The Charter ski lodge in Beaver Creek, Colorado. The San Juan Marriott Resort and Casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
These are just a few of the high-end travel destinations enjoyed by local judges for state-required continuing legal education and paid for with public funds. Expenses can include airfare, hotels, rental cars and a $118 a day per-diem for meals.
And in the case of the Puerto Rico trip this past July, a golf tournament and beach party.
"This is, I think, is a perk that has been, in some instances, abused or misused and it requires the attention of the supervisory authority over all courts, and that's the Supreme Court,” said Rafael Goyeneche of the Metropolitan Crime Commission.
In fact, the high court will get a chance to review the travel expenses after the state completes its audit of the court's judicial expense fund. Goyeneche requested the audit after Channel 4 exposed millions of dollars in insurance purchases beyond what is provided by the state.
But the audit is looking at all judicial expenses, and records show travel is second only to the insurances benefits.
The Orleans Parish Civil Court travel expenses since 2009 goes beyond the $173,000 we documented for criminal court over the same period. Records show that the 14 civil and four city court judges spent more than a $250,000 public on their trips in less than three years.
"Let's not mince words. Going to Jamaica to get continuing legal education is an extravagance,” Goyeneche said. “And certain judges are going to Loyola University law school and getting their legal education."
Like criminal court, we found a wide disparity in the civil court travel expenses from judge to judge.
Since 2009, the highest travel expenses were tallied by Judge Michael Bagneris at $25,467. Judge Lloyd Medley had the second highest at just under $21,000. That compares to Judge Sidney Cates, who spent $750, and Judge Christopher Bruno, who spent no public money on CLE travel.
"Look at some judges that are getting their training locally rather than going to exotic locations, spending a fraction of what other judges are spending,” Goyeneche said.
Here are some of details contained in the expense records:
Judge Rose Ledet stayed at a $337 a night room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. That amount is often topped by judges who attend the annual summer conference in San Destin, where Louisiana judges have been going for decades, often bringing their families.
Judge Madeline Landrieu and three guests stayed at a three-bedroom beachside condo that averaged $440 a night.
But that wasn't the highest lodging bill. Records show that Second City Court Judge Mary K.K. Norman was reimbursed for this $462 a night room at The Westin in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
"It's truly eye-opening to see the amount of money that's spent by the court on continuing legal education,” Goyeneche said.
In his audit request, Goyeneche singled out one expense in particular for extra scrutiny. For years, local judges have gone to an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica, Couples Swept Away. Records show that the judges collected per-diem for meals even though the resort is all-inclusive, covering all meals, cocktails and entertainment.
"I think it's clearly a violation of the judicial canons and might very well cross the line criminally,” Goyeneche said.
Loyola Law Professor Dane Ciolino said most of the seminars he’s seen are “legitimate.”
“Where the materials are seriously discussed and some good discussions are had among the judges and the lawyers present," he said.
Ciolino has attended many CLE conferences. He believes they are generally useful, but he agrees that accepting a per diem at an all-inclusive resort raises questions.
"One thing that is absolutely clear to me is that if any judge - or any public official - is invoicing the public for expenses that were, in fact, not incurred, I don't think anyone's going to suggest to you that that's appropriate,” Ciolino said. “It's not."
Unlike most CLE conferences sponsored by state or national associations, these all-inclusive trips to Jamaica were sponsored by two local attorneys, Ammon Miller and Keith Doley. Both are frequent campaign contributors to local judges, including five civil court judges who have gone to Jamaica or Puerto Rico.
Campaign finance records show that Judge Herbert Cade received 12 contributions totaling $3,550 from Miller and Doley since 2002. Cade also attended a Miller-Doley CLE each of the past three summers, Jamaica in 2009 and 2010 and Puerto Rico this past summer.
- Judge Piper Griffin, who went to Puerto Rico, received $1,150 in donations from the pair.
- Judge Kern Keese, who went to Jamaica twice and Puerto Rico this year, received $250.
- Judge Madeline Landrieu, who went to Jamaica once, received $300.
- Judge Paula Brown, who went to Puerto Rico, also received $300.
However, not all the judges who received campaign contributions from Miller or Doley went on the CLEs sponsored by them. Judge Tiffany Gautier Chase received $1,675, but did not attend their CLEs. Finally, Judge Robin Giarrusso did not attend any of the Miller-Doley CLEs, and she said a single $250 contribution from Keith Doley in 2008 was returned to Doley, as were all her campaign contributions that year because she drew no opposition.
Miller and Doley, who work out of this office on Broad Street, would not go on camera for an interview. But by telephone, Keith Doley said the Jamaica CLEs, and the Puerto Rico trip he led this past summer, have all been accredited by the Louisiana Supreme Court.
He also said the cost is “not nearly what the judges spend going to New York, Las Vegas and Florida."
In a statement, civil court spokesman Walt Pierce said, "Orleans Parish Civil District Court complies with rules promulgated by the Louisiana State Supreme Court on travel.
“Judges are required to complete a minimum of 12.5 hours on continuing legal education per year, but many judges complete more than the minimum. Continuing legal education is essential to maintain an educated judiciary.
“The court does not pay the expenses of spouses or other family members who accompany judges on trips to CLEs or any other official business."
None of the civil court judges would agree to an interview, although several judges provided supporting documents showing that they personally paid out of pocket to bring family members on their judicial trips.