NEW ORLEANS -- New Orleans Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens is under fire from the city inspector general for what he is calling abusive nepotism by the former chief judge.
Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux is asking the Judiciary Commission of Louisiana to review the employment of 18 relatives and in-laws who have worked for the court at some point during the past 10 years before Sens relinquished the post of chief judge in June.
The inspector general’s office tallied the taxpayer expense of employing Sens’ family members at more than $1.2 million since 2010.
“It’s a lot of people and it creates a very bad image. It’s hard to believe that all of those selections were done on the basis of merit as they’re supposed to be done,” Quatrevaux said. “It costs us $39,000 a month to employ the judges’ relatives. From 2010 on, $1.2 million. That’s a lot of money.”
Sens’ relatives mentioned in the inspector general’s report range from the highest paid employees at Municipal Court to the lowest-paid summer interns. Additional documents obtained by 4 Investigates show that, aside from the elected judges, Sens’ relatives held two of the three highest-paying jobs at the court.
Sens’ nephew, Clerk of Court Christoper Sens, gets a salary of $70,642, according to the most recent payroll documents provided by the court.
A cousin, Stephanie Schnell, currently earns $58,632 as the assistant judicial administrator. Schnell is also served as Sens’ campaign treasurer, according to the judge’s campaign finance reports.
“I thought it was important for the public to know that there’s been this family working at Munipal Court for a long time at their expense,” Quatrevaux said. “The thing is, it’s unfair. It’s unfair to all the other people in this town who might have wanted to apply for a job at the court. It’s like saying to them, you don’t have a chance unless you know someone.”
In his letter, the inspector general acknowledges that the hiring of Judge Sens’ relatives might not violate state ethics rules, but he describes the practice as creating “an appearance of abuse.”
Quatrevaux wrote, “Building a family dynasty at the expense of the taxpayers of New Orleans creates an appearance of abuse that undermines public confidence in the judiciary and our elected officials.”
When later asked about his characterization of Sens presiding over a dynasty, Quatrevaux said, “I don’t know how many people constitute a dynasty, but it’s on the road, if it’s not there already.”
The letter to Chief Judge Desiree Charbonnet, who took the top judge post on June 1, states that the inspector general’s office is asking the Judiciary Commission to investigate the employment of Sens’ relatives in light of several canons in the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct.
For example, Canon 3B(4), states, “A judge should exercise the power of appointment impartially and on the basis of merit.”
“There are several judicial canons that deal with this situation," Quatrevaux said, "and that’s why we thought the commission should have this.”
Neither Judge Sens nor Judge Charbonnet returned calls for comment Tuesday.
This is the second time in two weeks that the IG’s office has blasted Sens for his hiring practices. Earlier, Quatrevaux described the cross-agency hiring of Sens’ wife and the wife of Sheriff Marlin Gusman.
Ann Sens began working as a real estate appraisal for the Sheriff’s Office in Dec. 2011, followed by the employment of Renee Gusman as a drug counselor for Municipal Court in Jan. 2012, according the Inspector General’s “Report of Inquiry.”
In that report, the IG’s office said the cross-agency hiring “creates an appearance of impropriety,” even though it doesn’t appear to violate any laws.
Likewise, the Sens’ family ties within Municipal Court don’t appear to run afoul of any laws, include sections of the state ethics code dealing with nepotism. The ethics rules only prohibit hiring of “direct” relatives such as spouses, children and parents.