Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Travel to conferences in Las Vegas, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Colorado ski resorts and other exotic destinations. Three-bedroom waterfront condos. Trips that routinely includes spouses and children.
These are just some of the expenses racked up by judges while getting their state-mandated continuing legal education. But now that the state legislative auditor is combing through the New Orleans courts’ books, this longstanding practice is under serious scrutiny.
The state audit was prompted by earlier Channel 4 stories that exposed millions of dollars in supplemental insurance purchases, purchases that go beyond benefits provided under state law. While reviewing the courts’ expenses, 4 Investigates also compiled records of the judges’ second largest discretionary expense: travel.
All state judges are required to get at least 12.5 hours in legal training each year. Records show that in New Orleans, criminal and civil court judges in New Orleans spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds for travel expenses to get that training.
In this first installment of a two-part series, we examine Orleans Parish Criminal Court. Records show that since 2009, the court’s 13 judges and four part-time magistrate commissioners spent more than $173,000 on travel-related expenses. That includes airfare, rental cars, lodging and $118-a-day per diem for meals.
"It's truly eye-opening to see the amount of money that's spent by the court on continuing legal education," said Rafael Goyeneche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. "This is an area that is long overdue for scrutiny. And I think this is a by-product of a lack of transparency and accountability."
Looking at the individual records for each judge, we found wide disparities. Chief Judge Terry Alarcon spent the least over the nearly three-year period, $178, going only to local conferences. Judge Julian Parker was next at $672.
At the high end was Judge Lynda Van Davis, who spent $36,856.
Judge Robin Pittman was next at $20,824.
"Something is wrong with that,” Goyeneche said. “There shouldn't be that degree of disparity, that amount of variance from judge to judge."
A closer look at Van Davis’s travel shows trips to Puerto Rico, Disney World, Las Vegas, San Diego, Denver and two trips to Jamaica. The records show Van Davis took a total of 16 out-of-state trips since 2009.
Supporting documents show that in March 2011, during Van Davis’s trip to Orlando, she stayed at the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, Walt Disney World’s most deluxe hotel.
The following month, Van Davis stayed at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Biloxi, Miss. Then in June, she stayed for a week in a two-bedroom beachside condo in Destin, Florida with two guests at cost of about $2,000. Less than one month later, she went to a locally sponsored CLE at a resort casino in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
When any judge leaves the state, they also get $118 a day per diem, even when they stay at an all-inclusive resort where food and alcohol is included.
But does all this travel affect a judges' performance on the bench? In Van Davis' case, annual reports by the Metropolitan Crime Commission show that she has the largest backlog of open cases, an average of 318 in 2009 and 299 last year. And Alarcon, who traveled the least, had the second lowest backlog over the two year period, with an average of 133 open cases in 2009 and 205 last year.
Goyeneche said the connection is clear.
"Cases aren't being tried. Cases aren't being disposed of. People who innocent that are sitting jail while a judge is maybe in Jamaica sipping daiquiris on the beach. And that's wrong,” Goyeneche said.
Loyola University School of Law professor Dane Ciolino regularly attends these conferences with judges and other lawyers. He said the trips, even ones that include family members, have the stamp of approval of the Louisiana Supreme Court.
"The American Bar Association has passed a model code of judicial conduct, and under that model code of judicial conduct it is allowable for judges and their spouses to receive essentially paid-for travel to continuing legal education events," Ciolino said.
But when we showed Ciolino our spreadsheets with the total travel expenditures, he said it does raise other issues beyond legality and ethics.
"Whether these trips and this use of public money is prudent or practical given economic times is really another issue,” he said. “These trips have been going on for decades. ... It is a valid question ask. If these judges can get their CLE locally, why don't we require them to do that?"
None of the criminal court judges would agree to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement court spokesperson Margaret Dubuisson wrote, "Lawyers who are elected to judicial office are not exempt from rules for continuing legal education. In their dual capacity as lawyers and judges who administer and interpret the law, state judges must comply with these rules.”
In part two of our special report, airing Wednesday at 6 p.m., we will show you the travel by Orleans Parish civil courts judges, with expenses even higher than what we discovered in criminal court.
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