Monica Hernandez / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS - New developments in an investigation Eyewitness News launched last summer.
Judges in the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court have now given up their extra insurance benefits. The court had spent nearly $2 million on extra insurance benefits since 2006, but after a series of 4 Investigates reports, those policies have been cut off.
Rafael Goyeneche, head of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, said the decision to drop extra insurance benefits bought with public funds was long overdue.
'I think it's unfortunate that it took over seven months for the last of the judges to give up that insurance,' said Goyeneche.
State law is clear: insurance benefits must be the same rate for all state employees, including judges.
But in June of last year, 4 Investigates' Mike Perlstein revealed judges were using court fines and fees to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars in supplemental insurance each year.
That prompted the legislative auditor and the attorney general to investigate whether the very people tasked with upholding the law may have been breaking it.
'That money can be used for items that are more essential to the operations of the court and the criminal justice system,' said Goyeneche.
Criminal court judges have maintained they weren't breaking any laws. They said since the funds were 'self-generated,' it wasn't considered state money.
But according to some experts, there's a bigger issue.
'Whether or not the law is clear or not may be debatable, but morally, ethically, is it appropriate for the court that is challenged and in need of resources?' asked Goyeneche. 'Is it appropriate for those limited funds to be used to buy supplemental insurance for judges when any other state employee, if they're going to get that type of coverage, they have to pay for it themselves out of their own personal finances?'
In a statement Thursday night, Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judicial Administrator Robert Kazik said, 'Though it appears that other courts throughout the State apparently use the same approach for the payment of insurance premiums, our Court has erred on the side of caution and voluntarily suspended these benefits as we seek further clarification on the issue.'
Kazik said the judges voted to do so in a private meeting in the fall.
Civil court judges, on the other hand, dropped those same benefits shortly after Eyewitness News launched its investigation.
Attorneys for criminal district court have denied public records requests to see full accounting of insurance practices. But the legislative auditor's report will be made public once its investigation is complete.