NEW ORLEANS - Following up an earlier Eyewitness Investigation that revealed violations on city cars assigned to traffic court, the New Orleans inspector general issued a report Thursday confirming those violations along with questionable costs associated with those vehicles.
Prompted by our story, the inspector general found that three of the four judges, along with the clerk of court, violated the law by using blue emergency dashboard lights.
The nine-page report states that when confronted with the violation, Chief Judge Robert Jones removed his light and urged the other court officials to do the same.
“I strongly urge you to remove any flashing lights or sirens with which your vehicles are equipped,” Jones wrote in a memo.
In our earlier story, Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux was blunt when shown photographs of the emergency lights. “It’s wrong. It’s wrong for those lights to be in that vehicle unless there’s a post-certified police officer to operate it,” he said.
We also exposed Jones for driving with a clear-plastic cover over his license plate that obscures traffic cameras used to catch speeding and other violations. Jones told OIG investigators that he removed the cover when confronted by WWL-TV.
Jones told the IG’s office that he never handled a ticket for such a device, although the court as a whole has handled 6,443 license plate violations - mostly tickets for missing plates - over the first nine months of the year.
The inspector general’s report also tracked the mileage on the cars and found that they were used far beyond what is required for commuting and routine city business. The city’s take-home car policy prohibits personal use of public cars beyond “minor personal errands conducted to and from work.”
At the high end was Judge Mark Shea, who logged an average of 12,300 miles a year beyond what he needs to commute to the courthouse. Jones was second highest with 6,500 additional miles. Jones also admitted letting his girlfriend use the car on occasion, another violation of the city’s take-home car policy.
Clerk of Court Noel Cassanova logged 6,300 additional miles, according to the report, while Judge Herbert Cade drove an extra 5,300 miles.
Judge Ronald Sholes was not included in the mileage totals because he refused to answer any of the Inspector General’s questions. Sholes told investigators that he doesn’t believe the car belongs to the city, even though the city holds the title and pays for gas and insurance.
“Sholes stated that it was his belief that the Supreme Court for the State of Louisiana was the only entity with oversight authority over his take-home vehicle,” the report states.
The report also states that Sholes and Jones failed to report multiple accidents in their take-home cars, as required by city policy.
In a press release accompanying the report, Quatrevaux was highly critical of judges’ cars, going even as far as questioning the existence of the long-standing perk.
“The judges said that they did not respond to emergencies and regarded the cars as an historical benefit. The city paid $152,000 to buy them and thousands more to repair collision damages. These perks are unnecessary and unaffordable,” Quatrevaux wrote.