Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
NEWORLEANS- In Louisiana, all state employees are given same health insurance, covering everyone from construction workers to judges. But some judges in New Orleans have been awarding themselves extra health insurance benefits, in apparent violation of state law.
According to records obtained by 4Investigates, Orleans Parish civil and criminal court judges in New Orleans have been buying themselves supplemental health insurance through a company called Exec-U-Care.
The private insurance which can cost up to $15,000 per judge annually has been purchased for years from the judicial expense fund, money that comes from court fines and fees.
It appears that no other state courts in the metro area purchase this extra insurance coverage. And the supplement benefits do not extend to all court employees in Orleans civil and criminal court.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the non-profit watchdog group Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the perk is a clear violation of state law.
'I don't think you need to be a lawyer to read this statute and determine that you're not entitled to receive this. They need to stop it yesterday and they need to pay the money back,' Goyeneche said.
State law strictly dictates judges' insurance benefits. The portion of Louisiana Revised Statutes that covers judges' compensation reads as follows:
'Payment of premiums for health, medical, dental and hospitalization insurance programs...shall be at the same rate as those paid by other state employees.'
Goyeneche said, 'I think it's pretty concrete. The law couldn't be more explicit in this. If this compensation, this benefit, isn't something that the state provides for the judges, then they can't accept it.'
Since Channel 4 began filing public records requests and asking questions about the insurance purchase, the two courts have handled the matter quite differently.
At Civil Court, the judges acknowledged the extra insurance, but declined to comment further, citing medical privacy laws. On background, however, several judges said they recently dropped the insurance.
At criminal court, however, the judges are keeping their supplement insurance. In response to our questions, the criminal court judges retained a lawyer, Normand Pizza of Milling Benson Woodward, who issued an opinion supporting their extra health benefits.
In that opinion, criminal court judges don't think that money in the judicial expense fund should be considered state money because it's 'self-generated.'
That view seems to clash with opinions by the several state attorney general's opinions. In the most recent opinion, from 2004, the AG's office ruled that judicial expense funds could not be used by judges in Ascension Parish for extra dental insurance.
Pizza responded by writing, 'The judges respectfully disagree with Attorney General Opinion No. 04-0174. That opinion is founded on a misunderstanding of the term 'state funds.' This misunderstanding led the Attorney General to opine that judicial expense funds are state funds. This is simply not correct.'
But Loyola University Law Professor Dane Ciolino said that state law and the attorney general's opinions on the matter are clear: judicial expense funds are a form of public money.
'It seems to me that this would violate the state statutes,' he said.
Ciolino said that if you take the judges' position to its logical extreme, they could spend the fines and fees money on just about anything.
'If this opinion were accurate,' Ciolino said, 'then it would allow the judges to use the judicial expense fund, essentially, as a private slush fund to give themselves monthly bonuses, some type of year-end salary increase, whatever they'd like. And that clearly can't be the case.'
Some judges we spoke to private said the insurance was in place when they took office and they didn't know much about it. But both Goyeneche and Ciolino said that now that perk has been brought to the judges' attention, it could be the subject of an ethics complaint to the State Judiciary Commission if the practice continues.