NEW ORLEANS - The judges of Orleans Parish Criminal Court racked up five-figure monthly bills for multiple, overlapping life insurance policies, according to records released by the court Tuesday in response to a long-standing public records request by WWL-TV.
The records reveal at six separate life insurance policies purchased on behalf of nearly all of the 13 elected criminal court judges who were in office in 2010, using money derived from fines and fees paid by defendants. All of the judges at the time participated, and nearly all of them held all six policies simultaneously, according to the records.
The insurance included various policies from Sunlife, TransAmerica and Guardian. The monthly payments to Guardian alone frequently topped $10,000, according to the records.
“The abuse that went on for so long with these insurance perks is staggering,” said Rafael Goyenche, president of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. “The judges should be morally and ethically motivated to pay these funds back. These aren’t recent law school graduates who didn’t know better. These judges are trained lawyers who came from previous jobs and real workplace experience. They should have realized that this isn’t acceptable even in the private sector. They can’t argue ignorance.”
Eyewitness Investigates revealed the purchase of a wide range of supplemental insurance benefits by Orleans Civil and Criminal Court judges in a series of stories beginning in 2011.
But with the life insurance policies, the criminal court judges went beyond insurance for themselves, also paying for policies for spouses and children, according to the records. Those policies included whole life and term life policies, some of which paid out a cash value when the policies ended.
The Eyewitness Investigates stories prompted the state Legislative Auditor to review the decades-old practice, in which judges used money paid to the Judicial Expense Fund to pay for policies, including health, dental, cancer, critical illness and vision, as well as the life coverage.
Legislative Auditor Daryl Purpera found that between Orleans civil and criminal courts, the judges spent more than $800,000 in all forms of extra insurance since 2009.
More importantly, Purpera found that the purchases violate state law.
In the legislative audit, Criminal Court disclosed that judges and judicial administrators repaid more than $71,893 dollars in cash payouts they received from the life insurance policies.
Goyeneche, one of the leading critics of the insurance purchases, requested the audit based on Channel 4’s findings.
In an earlier interview, Goyeneche was critical not only of the purchases, but also the judges’ longstanding reluctance to provide records detailing which judges paid for which policies.
“These are public funds and they have used those funds for personal purposes," Goyeneche said. “This is clearly over the top, when you look at hundreds of thousands of dollars. We're not talking about a dental policy. We're talking about a smorgasbord of insurance benefits."
In their public responses the audits, the judges disagreed that the funds used to buy the insurance was public money.
Now, in now providing a more complete accounting of the court’s life insurance policies, the judges still disagree that the records are public, but agreed to a partial disclosure weeks after being sued in civil court by The Times-Picayune and Fox 8 News.
“My clients reiterate that they do not believe they were required to produce this information and records under the Public Records Act,” wrote Thomas Owen, an outside attorney hired by Criminal Court.
But Owen wrote that the records were being made public primarily because “the individual judges whose information (is) being disclosed have voluntarily consented.”
Civil Court, meanwhile, denied our request for a detailed accounting of the records, citing health privacy rules.
Attorney General Buddy Caldwell decided in March not to pursue criminal action against the judges. But the judges are still on the hook for disciplinary action from their superiors.
According to multiple sources, the judges have been called to hearings by the Judiciary Commission – the disciplinary arm of the State Supreme Court – in response to complaints about the insurance perks.
Because Judiciary Commission proceedings are private, there may never be a full accounting on how the high court has decided to handle the controversy.
But privately, according to sources in criminal and civil court, some judges have quietly repaid the cost of their extra insurance purchases. According to multiple sources, the judges have responded individually to judiciary complaints about the perks.
One cost that the judges have revealed, at least partially, is the amount of public money spent on attorneys to defend the insurance perks and fight disclosure of the records.
In 2012, civil court racked up more than $3,182 in attorneys' fees, according to invoices from the law firm Christovich and Kearney, LLP.
Criminal court, which provided records covering 2012, spent $13,647 paying attorneys to deal with the issue, according to a series of invoices from Milling Benson Woodward, LLP.